SHORT PUMP, VA. — Just a few miles from his family home, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) felt the wrath of the tea party Saturday, when activists in his congressional district booed and heckled the second-most powerful House Republican.
They also elected one of their own to lead Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Republican Committee, turning their back on Cantor’s choice for a post viewed as crucial by both tea party and establishment wings in determining control of the fractured state GOP.
Former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, pushed out of last year’s governor’s race by a similar party schism, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the results of the vote, in which longtime Cantor loyalist and incumbent Linwood Cobb was unseated by tea party favorite Fred Gruber.
“Clearly, there is a battle taking place for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Bolling said in a statement. “While the voice of every Republican should be heard, our challenge is to figure out how to be a conservative party, without allowing the most extreme voices of the day to control our party and determine its future direction.”
The tea party faction trumpeted the election results as a victory for core conservative principles of limited government, low taxes and a free-market economy.
“There’s been an ongoing battle for years between conservatives and establishment, and it’s a sweet victory when you win but you also win on the front porch of Eric Cantor,” said Jamie Radtke, a leader in the state tea party movement and former U.S. Senate candidate.
The first contested election in more than a decade forced the party to move the convention from a high school auditorium to a Hilton ballroom set up for more than 1,200 people.
The district chairman is an internal party post, responsible for rallying activists and volunteers at election time — and with the power to influence state party decisions such as whether to hold primaries or conventions to choose party nominees. A chairman is selected only by party activists for each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts.
Cantor appeared with his family at the event, where Republicans had packed the house. He was there in part to address his own reelection prospects. He faces David Brat, a tea-party backed opponent, in a June 10 primary that will be open to all voters in the district.
Any sign that Cantor’s support has slipped among the region’s most active Republicans could spell a tougher challenge during next month’s election. And some of the crowd’s reaction Saturday when Cantor took a shot at Brat made clear that the Republican majority leader has not yet fully shored up support.
“When I sit here and I listen to Mr. Brat speak I hear the inaccuracies — my family’s here.” Cantor said. As he was interrupted by the raucous crowd, Cantor’s anger was evident: “That’s enough — we are a country of free speech, so decency’s also part of this.”
Before Cantor’s remarks, Brat, a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College, defended his service on a board of economic advisers to former Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and accused Cantor of blocking a bill that Brat says would have stymied insider trading.
Brat went on to explain what he sees as the six principles of the Republican Party.
“I don’t run against Eric on a personal basis,” Brat said. “I like Eric as a human being; I’m commanded by God to do that and I do that. He’s been strong on national defense, and where he’s good he’s good.”
Cantor stoked the volatile audience of roughly half his supporters and half Brat loyalists.
“It is easy to sit in the rarified environs of academia, in the ivory towers of a college campus with no accountability and no consequence. When you throw stones,” Cantor said, “you throw stones at all of us who are working every day to make a difference.”
Finally, Cantor defended his record on the Affordable Care Act, taxes and Benghazi, promising party activists that he’ll continue to stand up to President Obama.