WASHINGTON — Republican tea party forces are rejoicing and the party establishment is somber or altogether silent in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat at the hands of political neophyte David Brat, an unflinching foe of loosening immigration laws.
Speaker John Boehner praised Cantor as “a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis” in a statement that steered clear of the issue that Brat put at the center of his campaign and has divided the party for years. Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus and Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the head of the House GOP campaign committee, both kept their silence Tuesday night after his shocking loss at the hands of an underfunded challenger who warned the seven-term incumbent would line up for amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally.
Cantor himself conceded defeat, telling downcast supporters, “Obviously we came up short.”
Brat and his supporters in the ranks of the tea party were triumphant.
“This is a miracle from God,” said the economics professor, who toppled the second-most powerful Republican in the House in an upset that few, if any, in the party’s high command saw coming.
His allies sounded more than pleased. “The grassroots is in revolt and marching,” said L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of ForAmerica.
The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for tea party forces, although last week they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and hope State Sen. Chris McDaniel will achieve victory then.
Cantor’s defeat was the first primary setback for a senior leader in Congress in recent years. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both lost their seats at the polls in the past two decades, but they fell to Republicans, not to challengers from within their own parties.
The outcome may well mark the end of Cantor’s political career, although at 51 he has plenty of time to attempt a future comeback. Aides did not respond Tuesday night when asked if the majority leader would run a write-in campaign in the fall.
But the impact of Cantor’s surprise loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clearer still. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Many Republicans say the party can ill afford to stick to an uncompromising stand on the issue, given the increasing political influence of Hispanic voters.
The majority leader had been tugged by two warring forces in his party and in recent weeks sought to emphasize his opposition to far-reaching immigration legislation as Brat’s challenge gained force. Last month, a feisty crowd of Brat supporters booed Cantor in front of his family at a local party convention.
Still, neither he nor other House leaders betrayed any serious concern that his tenure was in danger, and his allies leaked a private poll in recent days that claimed he had a comfortable lead over Brat.
In the end, despite help from establishment groups, Cantor’s repudiation was complete in an area that first sent him to Congress in 2000.
With votes counted in 99 percent of the precincts, 64,418 votes were cast, roughly a 37 percent increase over two years ago.
Despite that, Cantor polled fewer votes than he did in 2012 — 28,631 this time, compared with 37,369 then.
In the fall, Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammel, also a professor at Randolph-Macon, in the solidly Republican district.
It was unclear if Cantor intended to remain in his leadership post for the duration of the year or who might replace him in the new Congress if Republicans hold their majority.
Democrats seized on the upset as evidence that their fight for House control this fall is far from over.
“Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans’ extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight, is a major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right,” said the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. “As far as the midterm elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Cantor was appointed to his first leadership position in 2002, when he was named chief deputy whip of the party and became the highest-ranking Jewish Republican in Washington. It was a recognition of his fundraising skills as well as his conservative voting record at a time Republican leaders were eager to tap into Jewish donors for their campaigns. Since Boehner became speaker in 2009, Cantor has been seen as both a likely eventual successor and at times a potential rival.