Partly the result of our political system, partly due to the sluggishness of cultural change, most elections today play out in recurring patterns that make them relatively easy to predict with minimal information. It is rare and, for better or worse, particularly difficult for an incumbent to lose an election– and even more rare that a ranking member of a majority party should lose his seat to a primary challenger. Such was surely the assessment of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and his staff prior to Tuesday’s Virginia primary, as demonstrated by an internal poll that predicted a generous thirty-four-point lead for the incumbent.
But as the results of the primary clearly demonstrated, past trends are no guarantee of future successes in politics– and certainly not in today’s Republican Party, in which party veterans are facing heated challenges from Tea Party candidates.
Economics professor David Brat upset Cantor by approximately eight points — the first primary defeat for a majority leader in congressional history — undoubtedly sending GOP leadership and RNC members scrambling to retreat and regroup. They had faced such losses before, but a loss so near the top of the Republican pecking order hits much closer to home than do the protestations of a few first or second-term Tea Partiers in the House and Senate. Since 2012, the Democrats have been celebrating the “death” of the Tea Party movement – not because it was true, but because they wanted it to be true. Some of the GOP’s top brass likely wanted to believe it as well. Brat’s victory will serve as a rude awakening to both. As for the leftists who are currently using the issue of limiting campaign donations and spending as a talking point for the midterms, Cantor’s $5 million campaign tab, compared to Brat’s $122,000 of spending, should amply prove that – whatever their rhetoric – money does not inherently buy electoral victory.
Any implications beyond that are much harder to determine at this point. We know the nature of the outgoing Majority Leader – an almost dogmatic centrist who was instrumental in Speaker Boehner’s Tea Party Purge following the 2012 elections – but for most (including myself), the man replacing him is a relative unknown. Few expected Brat to defeat Cantor, and so few outside of Cantor’s own district have researched him in much depth. Initial impressions are that he is a man familiar with the works of Ayn Rand but who nevertheless leans heavily on appeals to religion in his political campaigns, as evidenced by his pre-primary interview with Glenn Beck. Further analysis will surely come in the weeks leading up to November’s midterm elections, but until additional investigations can be conducted, additional judgments ought to be temporarily withheld.
There is, however, a single point on which Brat can be immediately evaluated: immigration. He has postured himself as being Cantor’s antithesis on immigration policy, which has generally been one in favor of reform (however paltry). Immediately prior to the primary, Cantor visited a local news station in Virginia and expressed his support for measures to improve border security as well as to “work on something like the kids,” meaning a path to legal status for those who entered the country without documentation at a young age and who were raised, for all intents and purposes, as Americans. Oppositely, Brat rejected any and all forms of a path toward legal residency, further bogging down attempts by some of the right to adopt a more free market approach toward immigration. In his interview with Beck, Brat went so far as to assert that Americans are suffering “losses of jobs due to amnesty,” an inexcusable error for a man who, as a professor of economics, should know better. For that, Brat should be censured – immediately, given that his defeat of Cantor will likely frighten pro-immigration Republicans into silence for the time being, fearing a primary defeat over that issue.
Fortunately, Cantor’s defeat does not appear to be indicative of a rise of a “single-issue opposition” within the GOP on the issue of immigration. Erick Erickson, editor of RedState, put it in the following terms:
“…Cantor really did not lose because of immigration alone. Immigration was the surface reason that galvanized the opposition to Cantor, but the opposition could not have been galvanized with this issue had Cantor been a better congressman these past few years.”
Cantor, Erickson continues, lost because he was more concerned with achieving the speakership than with representing the interests of his own constituents. He believed he was immune from defeat. Of course, as Brat demonstrated, no political opponent is so easy to defeat as one who is certain of his own victory.
Ideally, Cantor’s exit will provide an opportunity for a new majority leader to shape the future of the Republican Party. With several months remaining until Cantor’s exit from the House, that is yet to be seen, but despite all the unknowns, Brat’s victory has brought the battle for the future of the GOP into full focus. No longer can the GOP Establishment pretend, either to others or to themselves, that they are the hegemonic determiners of their party’s direction, or that the intellectual upheaval on the right is something they can just “ride out.” The battle has been brought to their front door. How they respond is now up to them.