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Everyone--the pundits, the pollsters, the pols, the hacks, the flacks, the friends, the supporters, the opponents, the winner, the loser—was shocked by Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s crushing primary defeat by a man named David Brat, a little-known economics professor who will likely be the next congressman from Virginia’s District Seven.
In a wholly unexpected upset, Brat took down the second most powerful Republican in the House, a lawmaker with 13 years of hard-earned Beltway clout who was within arms reach of becoming the next Speaker of the House. Brat’s victory represents the greatest coup yet for voters and candidates closely aligned with the insurgent tea party faction of the Republican Party and who see today’s GOP leaders as insufficiently willing to hold the line on conservative issues.
For a sense of just how unexpected Cantor’s loss was, Tuesday’s upset was the first time a sitting House Majority Leader has lost a race since the job was created at the turn of the century—the nineteenth century.
Almost everything about this race was stacked against Brat: On funding, Cantor outspent Brat by nearly $5 million. Although polling immediately before the race suggested the race was tightening slightly, most pollsters, including Cantor’s own internal team, showed the incumbent breezing to victory.
Cantor obviously took note of the tightening race, spending more than $1 million against Brat in the final month of the campaign. But as Tuesday’s results showed, the efforts weren’t enough to overcome tea party frustration with the long-term incumbent.
There isn’t a simple answer to explain Cantor’s defeat. The most prominent conservative and tea party groups that have supported insurgent candidates around the country didn’t back Brat financially. In the final weeks of the campaign, however, conservative pundits with wide following on the right —such as author Ann Coulter and radio hosts Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham —began a vocal campaign to pound Cantor over the issue of immigration, suggesting that he supported “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Ingraham even traveled to Richmond to campaign for Brat.
While Cantor was a supporter of a program that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to earn a path to legality, he never voiced support for the comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform plan the Senate passed last year. Those who say Cantor’s election was all about immigration will want to look south to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s primary victory on the same night; Graham was a co-sponsor of the Senate bill and easily fended off his own tea party challengers.
Still, Cantor’s defeat will almost surely scare other Republicans out of uttering a word of support for immigration reform in the near future, leading to a long-term delay of action on the issue in Congress.
Tuesday’s results will also bolster tea party activists looking to unseat lawmakers they deem naughty in future primaries and elections. Sitting GOP lawmakers will look to Tuesday’s result as a reminder that no incumbent is truly safe.
“If Eric Cantor isn't anti-government, anti-spending, anti-Obama enough to insulate himself from grass-roots rebellion, then you've got to ask yourself: Who is?” Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai asked in his column last week.
Cantor clearly underestimated the extent of his opposition, and by the time he began to turn his team to reverse the situation, it was too late. You better believe others in his party won’t make the same mistake.