What did tea party take from Eric Cantor defeat? New life, perhaps. (+video)

The tea party wing of the Republican Party has been relatively subdued since the government shutdown debacle last fall. The Eric Cantor defeat could rouse it.

By , Staff writer

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    House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio reflects on the stunning primary defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia,during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday.
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With the upset loss of Rep. Eric Cantor to an even more conservative House candidate this week, will the lid blow off the simmering tea party?

Since last fall, the Republican establishment in Washington has, more or less, been able to keep its most conservative wing from boiling over, especially in the hot-headed US House. 

That control began with the deal to end the partial government shutdown last October, moved along with a bipartisan agreement on the federal budget, passed the shoals of the debt ceiling in February, and on into a primary season in which tea party candidates were buried nearly everywhere (big exception: Texas; big question mark: Mississippi).

Recommended: Who could be the next Ted Cruz? Top 10 tea party primaries of 2014.

But with Mr. Cantor so roundly defeated by tea party-backed Dave Brat in Virginia on Tuesday, the GOP pot could well boil over again. That’s why the internal election to replace Cantor as majority leader of the House Republicans is taking place so quickly, on June 19.

Republican leaders “just want to get it over with,” says Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R) of Georgia, surrounded by a scrum of reporters trying to gauge where the race is going. “These inner-party elections can be so divisive.”

No kidding.

True, such elections are determined mostly by personal relationships. And it looks now – though things can change – as if “establishment” Republican Kevin McCarthy of California may well have the votes to move from his job as the No. 3 Republican, where he whips votes, into Cantor’s slot as No. 2, who determines what comes to the floor.

But a battle that includes very conservative Republicans is on for Mr. McCarthy’s job – with some conservatives hoping for a completely new leadership team when a new Congress convenes in January.

Tea party conservatives read the stunning Cantor upset as a signal that voters are rejecting tentative policies on issues they care about, such as spending, debt, size of government, and borders. Without a stronger agenda, voters may be inclined to retire other GOP lawmakers, as they did Cantor.

“We’re secure in a Republican majority, but I [think] the leadership and the establishment in general has lost its way,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas in an interview this week. Mr. Huelskamp, elected in the tea party wave of 2010, was among a group of conservatives who tried to oust Speaker John Boehner last year. The message from Virginia voters this week was not only to Cantor, he says, “but to the Republican leadership team.”

The divisions within the Republican Party, especially in the House, fall along two lines: strategy – how to govern and win elections – and policy approaches to the nation’s problems.

Mr. Boehner’s governing strategy is to move conservative bills, mostly small-bore, whenever he can, and to compromise with Democrats when he must. Much of the work of the House GOP ends up in the dustbin of the Democrat-controlled Senate. Unlike the tea-party faction of his party, he did not favor last year’s government shutdown and was not willing to put the credibility of the United States on the line by defaulting on the nation’s debt this past winter. Conservatives see brinkmanship as sticking up for principle.

As for winning elections, both Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentuckian who leads the Republican minority in the Senate, are sticking to a mostly anti-Obama strategy for November midterms. No big-ideas agenda. No “Contract with America,” such as that touted by Republican Newt Gingrich in 1994. That’s too risky, especially when the president is giving Republicans so much to criticize.

But that’s exactly what conservatives are agitating for – which leads to another point of division. The problem with coming up with a positive agenda to run on is that Republicans would have to agree on one. That would expose splits, and that’s what the leadership in both chambers wants to avoid.

Those splits are in plain sight, right there in Cantor’s own district. Mr. Brat battered Cantor over two of them: immigration reform and big business.

Even though Cantor opposes comprehensive immigration reform, Brat went after him for backing “amnesty” for one group, children of illegal immigrants. And even though Brat is a free-market capitalist like Cantor, he’s also an ethicist. He railed against the incumbent’s association with big-bank “crooks” and “crony capitalism” generally. It’s the kind of split that cheers folks on Main Street but makes Wall Street worry.

In 2015 and 2016, these policy debates are more likely to be determined in the race for president than in the halls of Congress. But conservatives such as Huelskamp in the House and Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah in the Senate are impatient for a conservative agenda. They and other conservatives in both chambers are actively discussing ideas they hear from constituents, so they can be turned into positions to bring to voters.

Some establishment candidates also see the need for something positive to sell, and suggest an agenda that might include smallish items like the Keystone XL pipeline and more tax breaks for small business.

“I’m tired of complaining about Democrats all the time,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina in his primary victory speech on Tuesday. “I want to say something positive about us.”

The question is, what?

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