Tea Party delivers stunning victory, unseats House majority leader
In a historic upset propelled by Tea Party activists, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was defeated in the congressional primary on Tuesday, with insurgent David Brat delivering an unpredicted and devastating loss to the man who has widely been touted as the next speaker.
The race was called shortly after 8 p.m. by The Associated Press, which pronounced Cantor's 13-year political career at least temporarily over. Cantor conceded a short time later. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Brat was ahead with 55.6 percent of the vote compared with Cantor's 44.4 percent.
People close to Cantor told Politico that internal polls showed him hovering near 60 percent in the run-up to the race.
“I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight,” Cantor, 51, said to a stunned crowd of supporters in a Richmond hotel ballroom. “It's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”
No sitting House majority leader has lost a primary since 1899.
The party's establishment struggled to grapple with the news while some conservatives relished the surprising win.
“This is an earthquake,” said former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a friend of Cantor's. “No one thought he'd lose.” But Brat, tapping into conservative anger over Cantor's role in supporting efforts to reform federal immigration laws, found a way to combat Cantor's significant financial edge.
Brat reportedly raised about $200,000 for his campaign, and Cantor had as much as $5 million in his war chest.
“Eric Cantor's loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment,” said Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative group that targeted Cantor throughout the primary. “The grassroots is in revolt and marching.”
Others had a different take. Longtime Virginia Republican strategist Chris LaCivita said Cantor's work to build the Republican majority had taken him away from his home district. “He spent days, weeks and months traveling the country, raising money to add to the Republican majority. What can be attributed to Eric in doing so is unquestionable. Unfortunately, it had a price.”
Brat, an economics professor, was not considered a major threat until election night. But there were early signs of trouble.
Brat exposed discontent with Cantor in the solidly Republican, suburban 7th Congressional District by attacking the Republican leader on his votes to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown.
A seemingly critical issue for Cantor was immigration. The majority leader had championed a Republican version of the Dream Act, which would enable some undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children to qualify for in-state college tuition rates. Although Cantor never brought the legislation to the House floor, his support for the idea irritated staunch opponents of immigration reform.
During a May meeting of Republican activists in the district, Cantor was booed, and an ally he campaigned for was ousted as the local party chairman in favor of a Tea Party favorite.
A GOP strategist who requested anonymity said Republicans will study the Cantor results carefully for signs of Democratic crossover, but anecdotally, he did not hear that was a real issue. “People always talk about that, but it hasn't ever materialized,” he said.