Eric Cantor’s Primary Loss Is a Political Earthquake. And It’s Awful.
Here’s the thing: Eric Cantor did not fall asleep in this race. He spent around $5 million. He ran lots of TV ads. He knew this was going to be a close one. He campaigned. And he still got creamed.
And here’s the other thing: Cantor was not an enemy of the Tea Party. He was in fact the Tea Party’s guy in the leadership for much of the Barack Obama era. He carried the tea into the speaker’s office. And still he got creamed.
Creamed! Has a party leader ever lost a primary like this? Stop and take this in. Like any political journalist, I’m a little bit of a historian of this sort of thing, although I readily admit my knowledge isn’t encyclopedic. But I sure can’t think of anything. Tom Foley, the Democratic House speaker in the early 1990s, lost reelection while he was speaker, but that was in the general, to a Republican, which is a whole different ballgame. And he was the first sitting speaker to lose an election since…get this…1862! But a primary? The No. 2 man in the House, losing a primary?
So what happened here? Obviously, first, it’s about immigration. That was David Brat’s (that’s the guy who won) whole campaign: Cantor was a liberal who supported a path to citizenship for the swarthy illegals. (He didn’t say that, of course, at least the swarthy part.) Immigration reform is D-E-A-D. There is no chance the House will touch it. That means it’s dead for this Congress, which means that next Congress, the Senate would have to take the lead in passing it again. (The Senate’s passage of the current bill expires when this Congress ends.) And the Senate isn’t going to touch it in the next Congress, even if the Democrats hold on to the majority. Those handful of Republicans who backed reform last year will be terrified to do so. And it’s difficult to say when immigration reform might have another shot. Maybe the first two years of President Clinton’s second term. Maybe.
Second, the reports of the Tea Party’s death are…well, you know. Cantor’s loss is a huge disruption of the narrative that the Republican establishment had taken control this year. And throw in the coming Chris McDaniel-Thad Cochran runoff in the Mississippi Senate race, which many now expect Tea Partier McDaniel to win, and you have a narrative in which the Tea Party can say, “We’re still calling the shots.” Cantor also has spent the past couple of years talking about education, which, any Tea Party person knows, is code for black, city, unions. Other Republicans in the House won’t miss that message, and they won’t try to carve out any “interesting” legislative profiles for themselves.
Third, what does it mean for the country? Hard to say yet, but bad, surely. The House GOP wasn’t exactly ready to start cutting deals with Obama even with Cantor in the leadership. Now that he’s been beaten by a right-winger…no one, not a single Republican in the House, will take a chance on anything. The legislative process, already shut down, will only be more so.
And Brat himself, fourth, is a star overnight. I’d hate to be his booker or scheduler. His Wednesday is going to be a roller-coaster ride from Rush Limbaugh to Fox to Laura Ingraham to who knows what. He is a hero to these people. Remember how Scott Brown attained wattage in 2009 by beating Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts? Brown was a major star then. Brat is going to make Brown look like a nameless session guitar player.
I’m sure there’s ramification five, six, seven, and eight that I’m not even thinking of right now. We’ll see. But this is an earthquake. One of the most shocking electoral nights in American history. Did I really say that? I did. It’s true. And it’s bad.