The shock waves from the stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) reverberated quickly across the Republican Party Tuesday night, as tea party and establishment strategists tried to assess the possible impact on upcoming primaries and on the overall state of the GOP.
The results from Virginia emboldened tea party advocates and enthusiasts, who suffered several high-profile defeats in intraparty contests this spring. It also put the establishment on notice that the long-running struggle inside the party will continue beyond this year’s campaigns and into the 2016 elections.
But establishment strategists said Cantor’s loss to conservative David Brat may have been the result of particular circumstances that cannot easily be replicated in other races.
Cantor’s defeat came as Republicans were focused intently on the June 24 Senate runoff in Mississippi. Establishment Republicans are deeply worried about six-term Sen. Thad Cochran’s ability to fend off a strong challenge from a tea party favorite, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
Strategists on both sides of that battle said they doubted that the Virginia race would have much direct impact, given that the contest is fully developed with heavy investment from outside groups backing McDaniel and establishment supporters for Cochran. But a victory by McDaniel would provide a major boost to the tea party.
Two other Republican senators — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas — face tea party challengers this summer. Up to now, however, neither of their opponents has gained much traction and they remain underdogs. Both states hold their primaries in August.
One irony of the Cantor loss is that it came on a night when Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) easily fended off tea party challengers in a multicandidate primary, avoiding being thrown into a runoff, as happened to Cochran.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, pointed to the Graham race and noted that the incumbent was a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and that his opponents had run against him by trying to highlight his position.
“Cantor’s race is one race in one congressional district that means very little for other races in other states,” he said. “But very few people will interpret it that way.”
Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who oversees political activities for the Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday night that its officials had seen warning signs for Cantor some weeks ago, offered help and “were waved off.” He, too, pointed to South Carolina — and the absence of tea party groups participating in the Virginia race — and said, “No tea party wave.”
For Tuesday night, however, the bragging rights belonged to tea party enthusiasts, and they wasted no time crowing about what the Cantor victory meant. Amy Kremer, former chairman of Tea Party Express, said the Republican establishment must “take notice that the tea party movement’s not dead. We’re very much alive.”
She said Cantor’s surprise defeat by an off-the-radar political novice was fueled not by outside group spending but by activism on the ground. “The real strength of the movement is on the local level, and this victory proves it,” she said. “There’s passion and fire in the belly. That cannot be bought.”
But Kremer’s group spent no money in Virginia to support Brat, nor did any other national tea party-aligned group.
In a post on the FreedomWorks for America blog, President Matt Kibbe wrote, “If you stop representing your voters, they will hold you accountable at the voting booth. We are proud to stand with Dave Brat in his election and look forward to working with him to reform Washington, D.C.”
The Cantor upset brought a quick reaction from Kansas. “Eric Cantor isn’t the only incumbent from Virginia who is going to lose his primary this year. On August 5th, it’s Pat Roberts’s turn,” challenger Milton Wolf said in a statement.
Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist and former senior staff member at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said establishment Republicans are relieved that Cantor’s loss came so late on the primary calendar, with only a few competitive races still to be decided.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s not concerning,” Walsh said. But, he added, “The good news is that a lot of the big primaries are behind us.”
At least two Republican congressmen, Reps. Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.) and Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), face serious primary challengers this summer. But both are endangered because of their personal vulnerabilities, not ideological impurity, said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report.
“I think it would be very difficult for anyone to replicate Brat’s win,” Wasserman said, noting the unique dynamic in Cantor’s race. “Cantor was in leadership. He owned the House Republicans’ capitulation on the government shutdown fight, he owned House Republicans’ flirtation with immigration reform, and he had problems his money couldn’t solve.”
Some strategists offered a gloomy assessment of the long-term implications of Cantor’s defeat. They noted that immigration reform, whose prospects were dubious, is probably dead for now. That alone adds to the Republican Party’s woes as it looks ahead to the presidential election in 2016 and the prospect of trying to win more Hispanic votes.
The other concern is the degree to which such a high-profile victory will encourage more challenges to House and Senate incumbents in the future.
One Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to offer a candid assessment of the implications of Tuesday’s shocker, said, “The real impact comes in 2015 and ’16 as even more incumbents get primaries. There will be blood in the streets.”