Yes, in case you weren’t anywhere close to political news outlets (or Twitter, which exploded) last night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, poised to inherit John Boehner’s gavel any old day now, and usually thought to be safely to Boehner’s right, was denied renomination by the Republicans of his district. By a 56-44 landslide. To a “nobody” that he outspent at least 20-1.
So now Randolph-Macon College economics professor David Brat is the GOP nominee for Congress in the 7th District, and unless Cantor chooses to roll the dice on a general election write-in campaign (which would, of course, kill his leadership career even if he won, and might even throw this strongly red district to a Democrat), he’s history. And speaking of history, there’s no recent precedent for a House or Senate Majority Leader’s deposition in a primary. The closest analog is Newt Gingrich’s (then serving as the number two Republican in the House) near-death experience in a 1992 primary immediately after a redistricting force him to move into unfamiliar territory. Two years later, Newt stood astride Washington like a colossus. Cantor can only imagine what might have been.
There were plenty of storm warnings for Cantor, most notably at the 7th district GOP convention a month ago when his candidate for district chairman was rejected in favor of a Tea Party activist. Cantor himself was heckled during his speech to the assemblage. But that was a convention, traditionally dominated by conservative activists; a primary was supposed to be a different and immensely more favorable venue for Cantor, particularly with his vast financial advantage over Brat.
Since nobody, so far as I know, outside Camp Brat predicted this outcome (best I can say is that I did a post on Monday suggesting that Cantor was “running scared”), it’s safe to say the post mortems today will be piled high. The most fashionable theory is that Cantor’s refusal to rule out House action on comprehensive immigration reform did him in (a Daily Caller-commissioned poll of the 7th district showed fully a third of GOP voters wanting every single undocumented worker to be deported without any options for legalization).
Whether this interpretation is fully accurate or not, it’s plausible enough to put paid to any House action (not that it was likely in any event) on an immigration bill this year. Others will suggest Cantor was blindsided thanks to incompetent or lazy consultants or pollsters (his own internal polls showed him with a 34-point lead last week). Slate’s Dave Weigel, among the few national observers to watch this contest closely, believes Cantor’s anti-Brat messaging (yes, the House Majority Leader ran TV ads against his “nobody” opponent for weeks) was exceptionally stupid in insisting Brat was a “liberal professor” because he served on a nonpartisan economic advisory board under Democratic governor Tim Kaine.
Weigel also mentions a theory that we will hear often from Republican Establishment figures today: Democrats “crossed over” in large numbers to beat Cantor. This is a hardy perennial excuse for surprise primary losers in states with no party registration, and in this case there was an open letter from former Democratic congressman Ben Jones (who challenged Cantor in 2012) urging tactical voting for Brat. But aside from the frequent overestimation of the willingness of Americans to cast tactical votes, the size of Cantor’s defeat despite all his advantages makes his repudiation by 7th district GOP voters hard to deny.
It’s unclear yet what Cantor’s demise means in terms of the succession to power in the House GOP. But there’s little question this contest will reinforce the tendency of Republican officeholders everywhere to protect their right flanks with all their might, and that’s a more important victory for “constitutional conservatives” than having Dave Brat in the House.
Interestingly enough, a Republican incumbent initially considered far more vulnerable than Cantor, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, romped to victory yesterday without a runoff over a field of six opponents trying to exploit his RINO reputation. Graham had the same kind of financial advantage as Cantor enjoyed, but also made himself a chief purveyor of red meat to “the base” in his abrasive exploitation of the Benghazi! “scandal,” and more recently, his suggestion that Barack Obama was courting impeachment by his handling of the Bergdahl exchange.
Cantor has been a conspicuous sponsor of the “conservative reform” band of intellectuals encouraging Republicans to think more deeply about a positive governing agenda. He might have done better by emulating Graham and finding some decidedly non-intellectual buttons to push among right-wing activists. That’s a lesson that won’t be lost on Cantor’s soon-to-be-former colleagues in Congress, and on the emerging Republican field for president in 2016.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.