Virginia’s Republican elite couldn’t believe it.
Some of the Congressman’s backers called the Associated Press and other news outlets, convinced that the numbers on the screen had to be a mistake.
The reported results were no easier to digest later in the night, when the AP and Virginia’s Secretary of State issued confirmations that Majority Leader Eric Cantor was trailing in his bid for renomination to represent Virginia’s seventh district in Congress.
Virginia’s political observers — and the Republican establishment that had fallen unanimously in line behind Eric Cantor’s campaign — couldn’t believe the numbers they were seeing from seven percent of Virginia’s precincts in the early minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m. Surely the early returns were a fluke and the powerful lawmaker who was never thought to be in serious danger would be rescued by returns in Henrico county and his other bastions of support.
But by 7:45 that evening, the Tea Party challenger David Brat had actually increased his lead to an insurmountable 6000 votes with a majority of precincts reporting. When the race was called just a half hour later,a shell-shocked Cantor delayed a half hour before delivering a short and numb concession speech. He could explain what had happened no more easily than any of the pundits.
“Look, obviously we came up short,” the subdued Majority Leader said in a hastily drawn up concession speech to a crowd of solemn supporters.
When was the last time in American politics that a prominent leader in Congress was defeated not in the general election butin the primary? Cantor’s shocking loss comes despite some heavy institutional advantages. A pro-business Majority Leader who was close to influential Republican donors, he was able to bury his opponent on the airwaves in the months leading up to election day, thanks to a 13:1 cash advantage.
But it wasn’t enough.
Big business backed Cantor, happy to be able to further ingratiate themselves with a friendly ally in the GOP leadership who seemed certain to hang on to not just his own congressional seat, but also his post as Congress’ third-most powerful legislator. But this advantage couldn’t overcome Brat’s ability to channel Tea Party angst, and the challenger was able to portray Eric Cantor as a conservative sell-out who has voted to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly and done nothing to derail Washington’s soaring spending.
Brat’s upset comes on the heels of the probable ousting of another powerful and long-time GOP legislator, Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. With these two wins under their belt, it can safely be said that the rumors of the Tea Party’s demise this cycle have been greatly exaggerated.
With Cantor having cultivated the reputation as a disingenuous obstructionist in his fiscal negotiations with President Obama and other Democratic leaders, it’s a certainty that more than a few liberals are smiling from schadenfreude. Obama himself has revealed to aides that Eric Cantor is the Republican he dislikes most in Washington, even more than Mitch McConnell, who has done more to introduce scorched earth politics to the Senate than anyone.
For Democrats, it’s poetic justice that the Majority Leader should fall victim to the “just say no” mood among GOP primary voters that he helped cultivate. In 2009 Cantor was instrumental in corralling a unanimous “no” vote against President Obama’s stimulus and other initiatives while serving as the GOP’s minority whip. Like so many other long-serving Republican lawmakers, he could never have imagined being consumed by the fury of the Tea Party revolt that he himself helped create.
But there is a bigger irony of the Tea Party coup Tuesday night: the Tea Party, in its visceral opposition to everything Barack Obama stands for, has just eliminated his public enemy number 1 on Capital Hill.
Or has it? Virginia doesn’t have a “sore loser” law preventing primary losers from waging general election campaigns as independents. If Eric Cantor chooses to pursue this route, he has a very recent model for success to follow. In 2010, Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski lost to a Tea Party challenger who had materialized seemingly from thin air and a timely endorsement from Sarah Palin. Though the surprise lost was initially thought to be the end for her politically, she managed to win in a successful write-in campaign—even running commercials instructing voters on how to spell her last name at the ballot box!
But Cantor will have an extra hurdle to overcome. His position of leadership in the GOP caucus means that he’ll be severely challenged in his third-party bid, which would split the Republican vote and quite possibly hand an otherwise unwinnable seat to the Democrats. Could the other party leaders punish him if he declares such a move? And which of Cantor’s resentful enemies will capitalize on the Majority Leader’s humiliation to declare war on a mortally wounded majority Leader? If resentful Republicans take this chance to turn on Eric Cantor, they had better aim to obliterate him politically forever. It’s an old political saying that he who takes aim at a king must shoot to kill.
Cantor’s enemies may not need to aim very carefully, even if he marshals every last effort he can muster to hang onto his seat. A three-way bid in Virginia’s seventh district, which gave Obama 41 percent of the vote in 2012, makes a plurality Democratic win likely against two Republican opponents. Cantor will be forcefully reminded of this by fellow lawmakers who are determined to retain their majority, which is a major reason he may choose to bow out gracefully in the days ahead.
In his concession speech, Cantor gave no sign that there is any political fight left in him. He called the privilege of serving as Congressman and then Majority Leader “one of the greatest honors of my life.” But it will be tempting for his campaign, which still has substantial resources, to commission a poll to find out whether he has any chance of a general election victory after being spurned by Republican voters.
If Cantor decides that his political obituaries are premature, election junkies are about to be treated with a double dose of drama, as Cantor navigates the treacherous halls of Washington while simultaneously battling two opponents in a chaotic three-way race. With this kind of storyline to follow, who needs House of Cards?
It’s too late to say for sure who will be the next congressman from Virginia’s 7th district. But there is still an unambiguous winner who can be declared. Republican Kevin McCarthy of California is the current Majority Whip of the House and directly in line to succeed Eric Cantor as Majority Leader. With Speaker Boehner himself believed to be planning retirement within a few years, this little-known lawmaker is poised to rise from Cantor’s ashes.
William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side.