House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat in Tuesday’s Republican primary could cost Virginia billions of dollars in forgone federal aid in coming years.
Not only is Cantor, 51, stepping down in July as the second-ranking House leader, but the Virginia delegation next year may well be without a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee for the first time since 1971.
With Cantor gone, congressional aides said, it is improbable that the new GOP leadership team will choose a Virginian to replace either of the two retiring committee members from Northern Virginia: Frank R. Wolf (R) and James P. Moran (D).
Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Beach Republican whose name had been floated for a committee spot, acknowledged the gravity of losing 72 years of seniority with the departure of Wolf, Moran and Cantor in the same year.
“That’s going to have to be a hurdle to overcome,” Rigell said.
Even before Cantor’s defeat, Wolf had said that Virginia’s loss of clout in Congress will put the state in “survival” mode at a time when anti-Washington sentiment is rising and competition to attract federal agencies and installations is especially fierce.
“The entire delegation is going to have to work together, because there’s a lot here that other areas of the country want,” Wolf said.
David Meyers of CQ Roll Call said the departures put Virginia at risk next year of falling out of the top 10 in the media group’s biennial ranking of states’ congressional influence. It would be the first time since 2001 and only the second time in two decades.
As majority leader and, before Tuesday, presumptive House speaker-in-waiting, Cantor helped determine committee assignments and the movement of legislation to the floor. As appropriators, Moran and Wolf exerted leverage across the House through their oversight of spending bills that were among a relatively few bills certain to become law.
Among House GOP leaders, Cantor, in particular, was known as an ally of the defense sector, which has been credited with accounting for 40 percent of southeast Virginia’s economy. Working behind the scenes, Cantor’s chief of staff, Steven C. Stombres, played a key role in the push this spring to keep 24,000 jobs in Hampton Roads by having the aircraft carrier USS George Washington overhauled and refueled at Newport News Shipbuilding, aides said.
That sort of influence may be missed in future debates over whether to trim or shift parts of the nation’s fleet of 11 aircraft carriers, five of which are assigned to the Atlantic Fleet and have Norfolk as their home port. Each carrier group represents about 16,400 jobs, and a new carrier costs about $12 billion, most of which flows through Virginia.
“The biggest loser in all of this . . . was Virginia,” one state Republican said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of acknowledging potential weakness. “This is massive. Virginia does not understand what happened” Tuesday night.”
Of course, Virginia’s U.S. senators, Mark R. Warner (D) and Timothy M. Kaine (D), and Maryland’s Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, will continue to look out for the capital region’s interests. And other Virginia lawmakers continue to move up the ranks.
Virginia’s senior federal lawmakers — Reps. Bob Goodlatte, a Roanoke Republican and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a Newport News Democrat, both elected to the House in 1992 — said the delegation would remain “unified on issues important to Virginia,” despite “greatly diminished influence,” as Scott put it.
In a statement, Warner called Cantor’s defeat “a loss for Virginia,” and he pledged to “redouble . . . efforts to work together in a bipartisan way to move Virginia forward.” He added, “This Tea Party victory does not help those of us from both parties who come to work every day and try to solve problems.”
Congressional seniority is a delicate matter in a climate where incumbency is not necessarily valued by the electorate. How the issue will play out, for instance, in Warner’s reelection bid against Republican Ed Gillespie is unclear. Some voters will see Warner’s standing on Capitol Hill as an asset, but if Cantor’s defeat is a guide, others won’t.
“In a state where the federal government is the largest employer, obviously congressional clout makes a huge difference to the economy, but voters usually don’t vote on that,” said former congressman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). He added: “I think I’d be more worried today being Mark Warner than Ed Gillespie. Democrats have got to be concerned that this energy that went after Cantor, it’s not going to stay bottled up. It’s going to come out again in November.”
Still, Gillespie may also have to work to stay clear of that anger. On Wednesday, conservative strategist Richard A. Viguerie said Brat’s victory sent a message from grass-roots conservatives “fed up with . . .Washington’s Republican professional political class.”
Jenna Portnoy and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.