Eric Cantor: Could he be the next Karl Rove?

In the Republican split over how cozy to be with big business, Eric Cantor and David Brat were on opposite poles. Now Mr. Brat could be headed for Congress. But Mr. Cantor could remain influential in D.C.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia arrives to meet with fellow Republicans the day after his loss to David Brat in the Virginia primary.

When House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost to David Brat in Tuesday's Republican primary, big business lost one of its most faithful allies on Capitol Hill. At the same moment, it also might have gained one of its most strident enemies.

The question now is who that tradeoff will help most.

Mr. Brat, an economics professor at Randolph Macon College, has been described as the Elizabeth Warren of the right – which is to say that he will not be sending Christmas cards to the executive board of Goldman Sachs. If Occupy Wall Street had a Republican wing, Brat would be its captain.

He has famously said: "All the investment banks up in New York and D.C. or whatever, those guys should've gone to jail." He argues that Wall Street's money is corrupting the country, warping free markets so that, among other things, the rich only get richer.

As a single legislator, Brat will not worry Wall Street too much. But in many ways he is more than a single legislator. The tea party, of course, is not any one thing, but a confusing and sometimes contradictory potpourri of many conservative principles. In Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, it has a strict libertarian. In Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, it has an antiestablishment icon. In Sarah Palin, it has a voice of right-wing populism.

All of them have a touch of Brat to them – more blue-collar Main Street than white-collar Wall Street, at least in their public image. But if Brat were to win his general election this fall, the tea party would have its apotheosis of the type.

It's unlikely a freshman member of the House – no matter how sensational his victory – could focus the diffuse glow of the tea party's economic populism into something more politically potent. In other words, Brat would not be able to ram through new legislation to rein in Wall Street.

But he represents the potential culmination of a strain of thought. The tea party and Wall Street have never been comfortable bedfellows. Now, the movement is on the verge of getting someone whose express political agenda is to flip the mattress.

The question is, how influential might he be?

What seems more certain is that Mr. Cantor will remain as influential as he wishes to be.

In losing Cantor as a member of Congress, big business is losing a valuable water-carrier on Capitol Hill. Moreover, the sensational nature of his loss will – at least for a time – make successors wary of following too closely in his footsteps.

But political influence is hardly limited to the men who walk around on C-SPAN in suits. Cantor told ABC's "This Week" Sunday that he wants to remain active in "the kinds of things that we’re working on in Washington."

"I believe after almost 23 years in public service that I can play a role and not just in elected office obviously but in the private sector," Cantor said.

Think Karl Rove, some say.

“He could be much more powerful as a fundraiser on the outside because he could start or assume control of a super PAC,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean told Politico. “He’d be very helpful and raise millions more than he could as majority leader.”

Before last Tuesday, this election cycle had largely been seen as a convincing victory for the Republican establishment and its big business allies. Time and again, tea party challengers were swept away, often by large margins.

That narrative could still hold true. While the tea party looks well positioned to take its top prize, the Mississippi Senate primary runoff on June 24, Cantor's loss cold either be an outlier or the start of a tea party resurgence. The rest of the primary calendar will offer clues.

Up until Tuesday night, the entire political class had assumed that Cantor would lead the establishment charge from his office in Congress. Now, perhaps, he will lead it from an office down the street.

[Editor's note: The original version had the wrong date for the Mississippi primary runoff.]

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