The roots of Eric Cantor’s defeat

Ben Pershing

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., center, joined at left by Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, arrives to meet reporters after a Republican Conference meeting at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. With his internal polling showing he had a comfortable lead, Cantor was supposed to cruise to victory in Tuesday’s GOP primary over an underfunded political novice aligned with the tea party. Instead, the Republican leader was soundly defeated in one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

National reporters tend to prefer national storylines. So it made perfect sense, in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning and perplexing loss in his Republican primary on Tuesday, that many attributed the outcome to a national controversy: immigration.

There’s no question that Cantor’s on-again, off-again support for some form of comprehensive immigration reform hurt his standing among some Republicans, or that his challenger — university professor Dave Brat — hammered the theme incessantly.

But Cantor wouldn’t have lost if Brat’s message hadn’t found fertile ground to flourish in the suburban and rural counties ringing Richmond. Instead, Tuesday’s upset is better seen as just the latest skirmish in a fierce battle for the soul and control of the Virginia GOP that has raged over the past few election cycles as Democrats have become increasingly adept at winning statewide races.

Virginia’s intraparty Republican war has pitted grass-roots activists — some of whom identify with the tea party movement and some of whom don’t — against the party establishment, peopled largely by big donors and Richmond’s lobbyist-consultant class.

Increasingly, Cantor and his allies had become the face of the “establishment” wing, on the wrong side of at least three defining internal fights that inflamed the GOP’s most passionate activists — exactly the kinds of people most likely to show up and vote in a primary. His loss is just the latest example of that establishment wing losing a fight against the insurgent activists in the state, who finally believe they can steer the party in their direction after years of frustration.

Bolling vs. Cuccinelli

Tuesday’s primary matchup had its roots in another GOP contest that never actually happened: the race between Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli for the 2013 gubernatorial nomination.

The nod was supposed to go to Bolling, the congenial lieutenant governor, while Cuccinelli, the brash attorney general, waited his turn. That was the way the Republican establishment saw it, but Cuccinelli didn’t and decided to jump in anyway.

Cantor endorsed his friend Bolling, saying the lieutenant governor “has the right experience, the conservative values and the ability to unite our party so we can win in 2013.”

But Cuccinelli’s supporters in the state GOP engineered a switch, swapping out a primary in favor of a party convention to pick the nominee (more on that later). Bolling realized he could never win at a convention dominated by hard-core conservatives — he might not have been able to win a primary either, polls suggested — so he grudgingly exited the race.

Then Bolling did something that earned him the enduring enmity of many conservatives: He began telling anyone who would listen, and any reporter with his phone number, that the Virginia Republican Party was broken. That it had become too extreme, and Cuccinelli was too divisive to beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor.

Bolling’s longtime consultant, Boyd Marcus, went even further, offering his full-throated endorsement to McAuliffe during the homestretch of the general election. After McAuliffe won, he tried to hand Marcus a lucrative job on the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board. The Republican-run state House killed that nomination, as the state party chairman likened Marcus to Judas Iscariot seeking his “30 pieces of silver.”

Here’s where things got complicated for Cantor: Marcus wasn’t just a Bolling adviser; he had also worked for Cantor, even serving as the congressman’s chief of staff early in his Hill tenure. Plenty of conservatives around the state took note of the headlines: “Ex-Aide to Cantor Backs McAuliffe.”

And Marcus’ longtime consulting partner, Ray Allen, was even closer to Cantor, serving as his most important in-state adviser right up until Tuesday’s shocking loss.

Cuccinelli’s loss to McAuliffe sowed bitterness on both sides of the GOP divide. Some Republicans agreed with Bolling that their nominee was simply out of step with an increasingly purple state. But many conservatives believed their man was abandoned. Cuccinelli himself heaped blame on unnamed national Republican Party leaders (a group that would presumably include the leader from Virginia) for failing to give him more money and strategic help in the closing weeks of the race.

Conventions vs. Primaries

Cuccinelli and Cantor clashed more directly on the question of how the party should pick its nominees, an issue that sparked intense controversy in 2013.

Like the rest of Bolling’s team, Cantor preferred the idea of holding a primary to select the Republican gubernatorial nominee. But Cantor made it known he saw this as a larger problem. Conventions can be controlled by relatively small groups of conservative activists, he argued, hurting the GOP’s ability to grow the party. And conventions could make it easier for grass-roots movements to take out incumbents. (Ironically, that’s exactly what happened to Cantor on Tuesday — in a primary.)

The debate even prompted Cuccinelli to send Cantor a terse note in December 2012, first reported by Politico, in which Cuccinelli swore he “never supported any effort to eliminate primaries as a method of nomination” and added, “In the future, should you have any concerns, I would appreciate a call.”

Then came the 2013 convention in Richmond, which handed Cuccinelli the gubernatorial nomination but also led to the selection of E.W. Jackson, a Chesapeake minister with a long history of controversial statements and financial problems, for the lieutenant governor ballot line. Jackson’s disastrous campaign, which helped drag down the GOP ticket, was Exhibit A for those, like Cantor, who were anti-convention.

More recently, Ray Allen, Cantor's Richmond-based political adviser, earned the wrath of the grass roots by using controversial parliamentary tactics at local party committee meetings around the state to put allies in key positions. Those meetings helped determine which delegates got to attend conventions in each congressional district, as well as the statewide GOP convention held in Roanoke earlier this month.

Conservative activists took note, and in May they got some revenge: Cantor was booed at his own 7th Congressional District Convention, and the incumbent district chairman, a Cantor ally, was booted from his job in favor of a tea party-backed candidate. In retrospect, it was a portent of what was to come.

Deal-makers vs. Stand-takers

Of course, immigration did play a role in dooming Cantor’s re-election. But it wasn’t just because Republicans in his district don’t want a reform bill or “amnesty.” It was also because the issue helped confirm in the minds of activists that Cantor was what they most feared — a deal-maker.

The charge might surprise some on Capitol Hill, who view Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as far more eager to negotiate with the enemy than his No. 2. Yet many on the right, in Washington and the Old Dominion, also see Cantor as a squish — a supporter of immigration reform who voted to raise the federal debt ceiling in 2011 and pass the TARP bank bailout in 2008, the measure that helped spark the entire tea party movement.

The deals haven’t just happened in Washington. In 2013, a divided General Assembly passed Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell’s massive transportation package, changing the way the state pays for infrastructure projects and raising a host of state taxes.

Most conservatives, including Cuccinelli, hated the bill and saw it as a symptom of all that was wrong with the Richmond power establishment. Cantor’s allies in Richmond supported the measure.

Conservatives in Cantor’s district have long feared that he might be willing to cut exactly that kind of bad bargain with President Barack Obama, whether on immigration or tax reform or entitlements. On Tuesday, they ensured Cantor will never get the chance.