Eric Cantor upset stuns GOP, revives tea party

The pacification of the tea party movement had settled into conventional wisdom in the 2014 campaign season. An outsize victory by unknown David Brat over Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, upends that view.

House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia (l.) and GOP challenger Dave Brat (r.) react after the polls close Tuesday in Richmond, Va. Mr. Brat defeated the No. 2 House GOP leader in the Republican primary 56 percent to 44 percent.

The massive upset of House majority leader Eric Cantor by challenger David Brat in the Republican primary in Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District rocked the 2014 campaign season, defying all political conventions but one – that all politics is local.  

Mr. Cantor, widely viewed as next in line to be House speaker, lost his race Tuesday by 56 percent to 45 percent, marking the first reelection defeat for a House majority leader. He raised $5.4 million for a race he led by double digits right up until the moment they counted the votes.

Moreover, Mr. Brat, a barely known economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., was outspent 25 to 1. Brat, who campaigned largely against Cantor’s immigration and fiscal policies, raised $206,000, with zero dollars from the big political action committees (PACs) that accounted for nearly 40 percent of Cantor’s fundraising, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Even the deep-pocket national tea party groups got this race wrong. They threw their support behind failed tea party challengers in Idaho, North Carolina, and Kentucky in a bid to upend powerful GOP incumbents seen as vulnerable, but ignored the race a few hours' drive from their Washington, D.C., offices.

Primary elections were also held in Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, and South Carolina on Tuesday. But these results were largely eclipsed by the scramble to explain the Virginia Seventh.  Here are the top three takeaways from Tuesday’s voting.

The tea party is not dead, after all. A theme of much primary coverage in the 2014 campaign cycle has been the success of the GOP “establishment” in beating back tea party challenges. In Mississippi, six-term Sen. Thad Cochran – who is in line to chair the Appropriations Committee if Republicans take back the Senate – is facing tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in a June 24 runoff that, until Tuesday, was seen as the tea party’s best chance to topple a powerful Republican incumbent.

Meanwhile, the national tea party groups that didn’t give Brat a second look in his primary campaign are quickly rallying round.

"We are proud to stand with Dave Brat in his election and look forward to working with him to reform Washington, D.C,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks for America.

Immigration reform is dead.  

A recent poll shows self-identified tea party voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the immigration reform pushed by some GOP leaders and business groups typically allied with Republicans. Sixty-four percent of likely primary voters in Virginia's Seventh District say the government should focus on blocking illegal immigration, while only 1 in 4 back measures to "deal with the immigrants who are currently in the U.S. illegally.”

As a House GOP leader, Cantor also got an earful from analysts who said that if Republicans did not reach out to Hispanic voters, they would become a permanent minority party. Cantor's recent embrace of a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children was a nod to such concerns. But it also fired up conservative voters at home, who turned out to punish him for breaking the GOP border-security mantra. Brat dubbed Cantor "the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty." Cantor responded in June with a flood of campaign material emphasizing his role in blocking the Senate immigration bill from consideration on the floor of the House.

Cantor's thrashing at the polls on Tuesday marks an end to such a shift on immigration reform, at least until a new Congress, this argument goes. The lesson many Republicans on Capitol Hill will take away is that even a slight shift in stance concerning legal status for any illegal immigrants is politically perilous.

Politics is local.

By contrast, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham has a strong record of support for comprehensive immigration reform, and he scored an easy victory in South Carolina's Republican primary over six tea party challengers. The two-term senator was a prominent member of the so-called Gang of Eight that brokered the Senate immigration reform bill, which included a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented people already in the US.

Expecting to be a target for tea party activists, Senator Graham traveled the state relentlessly. He raised and spent $8.5 million, compared with less than $2 million for his GOP primary rivals combined. Unlike Cantor, "Grahamnesty," as he came to be known, made a point of slugging it out with critics on the issue and stuck with it. Graham won his race with 59 percent of the vote, easily defeating his nearest rival, state Sen. Lee Bright.

"Graham is much more associated with amnesty than Cantor is, but in the end, politics is local," says John Pitney, a political scientist are Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "After the 2010 redistricting, Cantor had new territory and apparently he didn't work the district as carefully as he should have."

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