How Eric Cantor Sabotaged Himself

The No. 2 House Republican was expected to coast to victory Tuesday night—but went down in flames to largely unknown Tea Partier Dave Brat, who ran on an anti-immigration platform.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The shock defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by college professor Dave Brat is the type of upset that audiences wouldn’t believe in a Disney movie. Perhaps the most cinematic twist is that, at least in part, Cantor did this to himself. A toxic mix of ignoring grassroots Republicans in his district and becoming a lightning rod on the controversial issue of immigration reform meant that a future Speaker of the House became a former congressman Tuesday night.

Cantor, the second-most senior Republican in the House of Representatives, lost his primary Tuesday night to the largely unknown Tea Party candidate, who ran on an anti-immigration platform, by a margin of 56-44.

Despite Cantor’s reputation as a strident partisan conservative nationally, his support for some form of immigration reform and ties to his party’s pro-business wing made him persona non grata among Tea Partiers and immigration hawks. Yet, his race never made it on the radar for most groups. While talk show host Laura Ingraham vocally condemned Cantor, and Daily Caller writer Mickey Kaus beat the drum for Brat, few others on the right viewed the race as even potentially winnable.

Brat, the shock Republican nominee, is a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, but his surprising win in a safe GOP district based in the Richmond suburbs will elevate him to a national figure as he mustered a historic win against Cantor. Brat was dramatically outraised and outspent by the House majority leader. According to the last campaign finance report, Cantor had raised nearly $5.5 million, of which he spent over $5 million. In contrast, Brat, who had spent $122,000, had raised a total of $206,663. Brat also missed out on the support of outside groups after flaking on meetings with influential Washington conservatives whose support he was hoping to enlist.

In his speech conceding victory to Brat, Cantor called being a congressman in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District “one of the highest honors of my life.”

“We need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have. We can also put our solutions to work for the most vulnerable,” said Cantor, stressing his work on charter schools and educational reform.

Added the six-term congressman, “I know there are a lot of long faces here tonight, and it’s disappointing, sure, but I believe in this country. I believe there is opportunity around the next corner for all of us. I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things we believe in.”

One Virginia Republican familiar with the race suggested that Cantor’s loss was due to “a perfect storm” brought about by the fact that Cantor seemed to be schooled in “the George Armstrong Custer school of tactics as opposed to Sung Tzu school.” The Republican suggested that while immigration was a factor, the bigger issues were internal party politics. As opposed to other Virginia Republicans in Congress, Cantor didn’t show the most basic respect to Tea Partiers in his district. It wasn’t about Cantor’s votes but rather that he didn’t even show up to explain himself and get yelled at. If the majority leader, who was the only Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill, had paid more attention to the words of Woody Allen, who said “80 percent of life is showing up,” he would be in much better political shape.

But Cantor also exacerbated things by failing at attempts to play internal politics within the Republican Party of Virginia. In May, his candidate to run the congressional convention in his district, Linwood Cobb, was defeated solely because he was supported by Cantor. Grassroots Republicans resented that the House majority leader was trying to “launch a boneheaded frontal assault” on the state party to take control of it. The result meant was that “run of the mill Paul Ryan Republicans” were just as furious with Cantor as Tea Partiers were. In a straw poll taken at that the convention, Brat was the favorite of attendees, but so was the establishment choice for the Senate nomination, Ed Gillespie.

Ironically, the issue which Cantor was concerned about was making sure that incumbent Republicans always faced primary elections, not conventions. After all, Cantor would face an uphill battle in a convention for renomination and, in a primary, he’d be much safer.

In a phone interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Brat touched on these issues. In his opinion, this was an ongoing conflict with the Republican Party “taking it to the grassroots” in Virginia, which included both party governance and immigration reform. The result created quite a bit of “animosity and bad blood.” In his opinion, immigration reform wasn’t the be all and end all in the race but instead “the most symbolic issue that captures the diference between myself and Eric Cantor in this race [and] captures that fissure between Main Street and Wall Street.”

Recent polling on the race showed little hint that Cantor, whom many saw as a potential future replacement for House Speaker John Boehner, was in jeopardy. An internal poll shared with The Washington Post showed the Cantor campaign up 62 percent to 28 percent in late May. With eight days to go until primary day, the conservative website The Daily Caller commissioned a poll labeled “a shock” that showed Cantor with only 52 percent support, compared to Brat’s 40 percent.

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Cantor’s loss leaves the succession to Boehner uncertain. The favorite now will likely be Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chair of the House Financial Services Committee. Hensarling is well liked among conservatives and was considered a possible candidate against Cantor to be Speaker regardless. Now the way is clear for him to become the next GOP leader in the House when Boehner retires.

In a statement, Republican Party of Virginia Chair Pat Mullins was diplomatic. “I also want to thank Majority Leader Eric Cantor—my congressman for all of his 14 years in office—for his service to Virginia,” he said. “During his legislative career he has been a tireless advocate for the Commonwealth and his constituents, and I hope he remains a strong and active member of party.” Mullins also congratulated Brat on his win.

Speaker John Boehner issued a rather terse statment. “Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together. 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,” said Boehner. “My thoughts are with him and Diana and their kids tonight.”

The pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice went out of its way to distance itself from Cantor. Frank Sperry, the group’s executive director, said, “Let’s be clear: Eric Cantor was no friend of immigration reform. He’s been the main person in the House blocking a vote on citizenship, and he proudly campaigned on his opposition to reform... Cantor has always seemed more interested in his own rise to House speaker than in tending to his district. It appears the primary voters decided he was out of touch. Whether immigration reform happens or not, these are the facts: A year ago the Senate passed a bipartisan bill, it’s still up to the House GOP leadership to decide whether to give us a vote or not, and the votes exist in the House to pass reform... If the House GOP declares immigration is dead, then so is the GOP as a national party.”

Democrats nationally were already gloating about the results on Tuesday night. In a statement, DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, “Tonight’s result in Virginia settles the debate once and for all—the Tea Party has taken control of the Republican Party. Period. When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can’t earn the Republican nomination, it’s clear the GOP has redefined ‘far right.’”

Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammell, a fellow professor at Randolph-Macon College, in November.