Eric Cantor Falls to Shock Defeat in Primary

A little-known economics professor who campaigned against immigration reform defeated the House majority leader in his Republican primary Tuesday.

Cantor: Comes out swinging.
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick and Alex Roarty
June 10, 2014, 4:04 p.m.

In one of the biggest polit­ic­al up­sets in re­cent memory, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor lost his primary elec­tion on Tues­day to a polit­ic­al un­known who fo­cused his cam­paign on Can­tor’s sup­port for a path to cit­izen­ship for the chil­dren of im­mig­rants.

Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or Dave Brat won the Re­pub­lic­an primary in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict. Brat had 56 per­cent of the vote to Can­tor’s 44 per­cent when the As­so­ci­ated Press called the race just after 8 p.m. 

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Can­tor’s de­feat will send shock waves throughout Wash­ing­ton. The House ma­jor­ity lead­er was one of the best-known Re­pub­lic­an fig­ures in the coun­try, re­puted for his stra­tegic acu­men and polit­ic­al am­bi­tion. He wiel­ded an im­mense amount of clout with­in the Cap­it­ol and was widely ex­pec­ted to one day seek to be­come the speak­er of the House.

His primary was nev­er ex­pec­ted to be ser­i­ously com­pet­it­ive, and his loss is catch­ing every­one — from vet­er­ans of Vir­gin­ia polit­ics to long­time ana­lysts in Wash­ing­ton — by sur­prise.

“Ob­vi­ously, we came up short,” Can­tor said in a speech Tues­day night.

Can­tor’s loss was shock­ing, but there were sev­er­al signs of rising voter dis­con­tent among con­ser­vat­ives in his dis­trict. Brat at­tacked him for sup­port­ing “am­nesty” as part of his sup­port for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which forced Can­tor to re­it­er­ate that he op­posed le­gis­la­tion that provided for “blanket am­nesty.”

The is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion policy drew heightened at­ten­tion on Fox News and con­ser­vat­ive talk ra­dio in the past week after news re­ports doc­u­mented a surge of un­doc­u­mented chil­dren ar­riv­ing at the United States bor­der, over­run­ning pro­cessing cen­ters and the Bor­der Patrol.

In an in­ter­view just last Fri­day, Can­tor sug­ges­ted he could work with Pres­id­ent Obama to al­low a path to cit­izen­ship for some chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants already in the coun­try. In the cam­paign’s fi­nal days, Brat cri­ti­cized Can­tor for sid­ing with Obama on the con­ten­tious is­sue.

A sec­ond­ary factor in Can­tor’s de­mise was his dis­con­nect from many Re­pub­lic­an con­stitu­ents in the dis­trict. The state’s re­dis­trict­ing in 2010 made his sub­urb­an Rich­mond dis­trict more con­ser­vat­ive, adding new areas that he didn’t pre­vi­ously rep­res­ent. As ma­jor­ity lead­er, Can­tor spent less time woo­ing voters at town halls in Chester­field County and more time deal-mak­ing with Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton.

“Eric Can­tor and I have been through a lot to­geth­er,” House Speak­er John Boehner said in a state­ment late Tues­day night. “He’s a good friend and a great lead­er, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with gov­ern­ing. My thoughts are with him and Di­ana and their kids to­night.”

Can­tor didn’t take the chal­lenge from Brat ser­i­ously enough un­til it was too late. Between April 1 and May 21, he spent nearly $1 mil­lion try­ing to fend off Brat, but his cam­paign was still dis­missive of the chal­lenge even as re­cently as Monday when re­port­ers ques­tioned why it was spend­ing so much money.

“We lived the ex­act same thing two years ago,” said Ray Al­len, Can­tor’s cam­paign man­ager, in an in­ter­view with the Na­tion­al Journ­al be­fore Tues­day’s primary. “From 2000 to 2012, we’ve run TV ads, done dir­ect mail, yard signs.”

Can­tor won his primary with 79 per­cent of the vote last year, though he only won less than 60 per­cent of the vote in the last two gen­er­al elec­tions — in a Re­pub­lic­an-friendly dis­trict.

Can­tor’s loss is also a ma­jor de­feat for the faint hopes of passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form in the House. Brat’s fo­cus on Can­tor’s im­mig­ra­tion re­cord forced him to be de­fens­ive. Can­tor sent mail ads tout­ing his op­pos­i­tion to “am­nesty for il­leg­al im­mig­rants” even while ad­voc­at­ing for an ex­cep­tion for those brought to the coun­try as chil­dren — a caveat Brat cri­ti­cized.

Can­tor also ran neg­at­ive TV ads call­ing Brat a “lib­er­al col­lege pro­fess­or” and cri­ti­ciz­ing him for serving on an ad­vis­ory board for Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tim Kaine when Kaine was gov­ernor.

Can­tor’s loss also likely will leave the House Re­pub­lic­an caucus without any Jew­ish mem­bers next year, a fact that is par­tic­u­larly pain­ful for some Re­pub­lic­ans. “On a per­son­al level, it’s a mo­ment of sad­ness to lose someone who was spe­cial and unique,” says former White House Press Sec­ret­ary Ari Fleis­cher. “Who was proudly Jew­ish and a proudly Jew­ish Re­pub­lic­an. Eric’s loss will be felt,” Fleis­cher said.

There isn’t much his­tor­ic­al pre­ced­ent for a ma­jor­ity lead­er los­ing a primary. In 1994, Tom Fo­ley be­came the first House speak­er in more than a cen­tury to be de­feated for reelec­tion when he lost a gen­er­al elec­tion dur­ing that year’s Re­pub­lic­an wave. His pre­de­cessor was Speak­er Galusha Grow, a Re­pub­lic­an who lost his seat dur­ing the Civil War. In the up­per cham­ber, one­time Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle is the only party lead­er in re­cent his­tory to lose an elec­tion, in 2004.

The loss to lead­er­ship speaks to a broad­er de­feat for the Re­pub­lic­an es­tab­lish­ment. “Those who thought the tea party had been ab­sorbed just got a big wake up call,” says Re­pub­lic­an strategist Alex Cas­tel­lanos. “It’s alive and well and eat­ing elite es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans for break­fast.”

Both Brat and Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Jack Tram­mell are pro­fess­ors at the same small school, Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege in Ash­land, Va. The school has few­er than 100 full-time fac­ulty and a stu­dent pop­u­la­tion of just over 1,200.

In a state­ment from the Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic Party Tues­day night, Tram­mell said that “Vir­gini­ans are hungry for a rad­ic­al change from the dys­func­tion­al and reck­less polit­ics be­ing prac­ticed by those in Con­gress ““ and the res­ults of to­night’s primary elec­tion are the proof.”

Tram­mell wasn’t the only Demo­crat to put out a state­ment after Can­tor’s loss. “The Amer­ic­an people should take no­tice,” House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi said in a late night state­ment. “To­night, the Tea Party de­feated Re­pub­lic­an Lead­er Eric Can­tor who is one of the most ex­treme Mem­bers of Con­gress…To­night, is a ma­jor vic­tory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Re­pub­lic­an Party fur­ther to the rad­ic­al right.”

“As far as the midterms elec­tions are con­cerned,” she con­tin­ued, “it’s a whole new ballgame.”

Vir­gin­ia law pro­hib­its Can­tor from run­ning as an in­de­pend­ent, but he can run as a write-in can­did­ate, a strategy that worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010 after she lost the Alaska Re­pub­lic­an primary.

And it’s not like Can­tor’s sound­ing like he’s now ready to just dis­ap­pear.

“I be­lieve there’s op­por­tun­ity around the next corner for all of us,” he said Tues­day night. “So I look for­ward to con­tinu­ing to fight with all of you for the things that we be­lieve in for the con­ser­vat­ive cause, be­cause those solu­tions of ours are the an­swer to the prob­lems that so many people are fa­cing today.”

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