The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Does Cantor’s defeat kill Virginia’s Medicaid expansion?

“Watching the Cantor-Brat contest closely are Republican lawmakers in the House of Delegates. The great majority of them share [House Majority Leader Eric] Cantor’s situation: They are overwhelming favorites to win the 2015 general election in a gerrymandered Republican district. Their vulnerability, though, is in a low-vote nomination process with a challenger running as the ‘true Republican.’ ”

We wrote this back in April to explain the position of Virginia Republicans on Medicaid expansion, the top priority of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Cantor’s former statehouse colleagues view him as the canary in the coal mine,” we said.

Our equation proposed the following law of Medicaid expansion: The worse Cantor did in his primary against challenger David Brat, the less likely Republicans in the state House would be to vote for the governor’s proposal. The primary results have now been recorded. Despite polls that forecast a landslide for Cantor, voters in Virginia’s 7th District gave Brat a 55 percent to 45 percent upset victory.

In election terms, Mr. Cantor, the heir apparent to the speakership of the House of Representatives, could not have done worse: No House majority leader has been beaten for renomination. Therefore, according to our law, the chances of Republicans in the General Assembly approving McAuliffe’s Medicaid proposal in any form likewise could now be no worse.

Our column raised this question for the first time: What if Cantor fails to win easily? We heard from the usual suspects, who pointed out all the polls saying that Cantor had a sure landslide. But even if he got 60 percent — roughly the same margin George Allen won in the 7th District in the 2012 GOP Senate primary against weak opposition — would this be seen by other Virginia Republicans as the “all-clear” sign for stiff-arming the tea party?

We couldn’t answer the question. Rather, we said the following, assuming Cantor was not seen as winning “easily”: Republicans in the General Assembly would “likely eat ground glass before voting for anything a primary opponent could label as Obamacare.”

If our iron law is right,  there is no way Medicaid expansion can pass the General Assembly, even in a special session, unless the political landscape fundamentally changes on the GOP side of the field.

As we wrote last April: “Tea Party fear still haunts Republicans who reversed course last year to back a record transportation tax increase. That, coupled with the possibility of being labeled pro-Obamacare in a GOP primary, creates a political emergency not curable by the even the most free market of Medicaid plans.”

Cantor’s loss is, of course, attributable to national issues, not state problems. It is possible the post-mortem will single out a hot-button national issue, or a character flaw on his part, as the lead role in the defeat of a rising GOP star.

But this is surely not the view today from Richmond. Many GOP legislators are worried about a 2015 primary challenge. They will read Cantor’s unexpected loss as a cautionary tale. Public opinion polls show no great public demand for McAuliffe’s Medicaid expansion.

As Gertrude Stein famously said, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

Medicaid expansion, by any other name, is likely to be seen as Obamacare-lite by the very voters who defeated Cantor. The 7th District may have more of these voters than other areas in Virginia. But Republican incumbents are not going to tempt primary fate.

Cantor lost big. The Iron Law of Medicaid Expansion says Gov. McAuliffe’s Medicaid expansion is dead right now, buried beneath 65,000 GOP primary votes in the 7th District.

Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.