Shock waves rocked the Republican establishment Wednesday following the toppling – by Tea Party upstart David Brat – of Eric Cantor, the party’s Majority Leader in the House of Representatives.
The stunning defeat of an establishment power broker will set off a new leadership struggle in the Republican Party.
“I just came up short,” said Mr. Cantor who has been so confident that he would trounce the unknown, right-wing professor that he was in Washington, not his Virginia district as Republican voters went to the polls to turf him out.
Although his defeat may have little impact on the overall outcome of November’s midterm elections, it demonstrates the ongoing battle for control of the party.
Tea Party activists, and beleaguered Democrats fearing losses this fall if the Republicans can stay united, were equally exuberant.
Mr. Cantor lost because he was part of “the establishment that has gone along with policies that have completely left out the voice of the people,” said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Democrats crowed. “As far as the midterm elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ball game,” said Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who lost her job as speaker when the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives four years ago.
Hillary Clinton, the not-yet-declared Democrat presidential front-runner for 2016 was quick to seek advantage. She said Mr. Cantor “was defeated by a candidate who basically ran against immigrants.”
Mainstream Republicans and their supporters sought to downplay the damage.
“The Tea Party had nothing to do with this,” said Tom Donahue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “They didn’t put any money in. They didn’t have any people there. It was sort of an attractive professor in a very, very conservative district in Virginia. And everybody was surprised.”
In fact, Mr. Brat’s upset bucked this year’s broader trend in which moderate, and thus more electable, Republicans have mostly fended off Tea Party insurgents to the dismay of Democrats seeking to defend a fragile hold on the Senate.
In none of the closely contested states have Tea Party challengers succeeded in ousting Republican incumbents in the primaries. Mr. Cantor’s jolting defeat in a solidly Republican district in Virginia will reverberate mostly in terms of policy and leadership, not on the party’s immediate election prospects.
Despite being vastly outspent, Mr. Brat, a political neophyte, torpedoed Mr. Cantor, accusing him of being too willing to compromise with Democrats and too soft on illegal immigration.
For a party already struggling to broaden its reach to minorities – especially Hispanics, the fastest-growing demographic slice of America – the immediate consequence of Mr. Brat’s triumph will be to extinguish any flickering hopes of a bipartisan compromise on immigration before November.
“It’s really dead now,” said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, which fiercely opposes immigration reform. “The voters of Cantor’s district have sent an incredible message.”
Mr. Brat seemed as surprised by his victory as most pundits and pollsters. He called it “a miracle from God.” The primary upset makes him the likely winner in the Republican-leaning Virginia district in November where he will face Democrat Jack Trammell. Both men teach at the small Randolph-Macon College. America was “built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of right and left,” Mr. Brat said.
Democrats were exultant, with Ms. Pelosi billing Mr. Cantor’s loss as “a major victory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right.”
But not in most races and, so far, not in any the contested ones that matter most this year in terms of control of the Senate. There, the Republican Party needs a net gain of six to wrest control of the Senate away from the Democrats.
The Republican leadership has so far managed to avoid endangering winnable seats – as happened in 2010 and 2012 – when right-wing Tea Party candidates ousted moderates in primaries, only to watch the Democrats win in November.
For instance, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican moderate who has openly backed immigration reform, won easily on Tuesday night in South Carolina, stomping five primary challengers who accused him of not being sufficiently conservative. Mr. Graham’s defeat of Tea Party insurgents was typical of the Republican pattern this year. Only in a handful of races, notably in Mississippi where veteran Senator Thad Cochran faces a runoff against the Tea Party’s Chris McDaniel, have incumbents faced serious challenges.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest claimed immigration reform might yet be possible saying it wasn’t just Mr. Brat who was ardently against reform. Mr. “Cantor campaigned very aggressively against common sense, bipartisan immigration reform,” he said.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party triumph over Mr. Cantor demonstrates the struggle for control of the Republican Party continues.
The defeat of Mr. Cantor, widely seen as the likely successor to Speaker John Boehner, creates new uncertainty in the Republican leadership. Some moderates fear it will re-embolden the Tea Party, which suffered embarrassing setbacks last year when its drive to shut down the government ended ignominiously.
“My concern is that the Ted Cruz supporters, the Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning,” Representative Peter King, a Republican moderate from New York.
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul are both Tea Party favourites and both are possible presidential contenders in 2016.