The primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday will rank as one of the great political upsets in at least a generation and promises to scramble the legislative dynamics in an already dysfunctional and ideologically divided Congress.
Cantor, a seven-term Republican from Virginia who had emerged as the heir apparent to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), was considered the linchpin in any possible breakthroughs on a number of difficult issues facing Congress, from an overhaul of immigration policy to fiscal and tax reform. Any prospects for a grand fiscal bargain, long sought by Boehner and President Obama, would have required Cantor’s imprimatur, and he played a leading role in trying to contain his party’s ideological fervor, both nationally and in the Old Dominion, going into the elections of 2014 and 2016.
All of those hopes were tossed out Tuesday when Cantor lost to an underfunded challenger in the GOP primary in a district based in the Richmond suburbs. His defeat seemingly ends an ambitious two-decade march up the political ladder, beginning in the Virginia House of Delegates and culminating with an ornate office suite on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol, with a view stretching across the Mall.
The prospect of a loss seemed to have gone uncontemplated in the Cantor camp. The majority leader spent Tuesday morning at a monthly meeting with large donors and lobbyists at a Capitol Hill Starbucks, helping raise money for three junior lawmakers. Cantor assured the group that he had spent heavily on his race — more than $1 million since April — to ensure victory by a large margin and to show no “sign of weakness,” according to one attendee.
Instead he was dealt a resounding defeat at the hands of a first-time candidate who accused him of backing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. According to several Republican strategists, the loss may serve as a death knell for the chances of approving an immigration bill this year.
The results also threw the House Republican Conference — the formal name of a caucus that has ranged from recalcitrant to ungovernable in the GOP’s four years in the majority — into open turmoil over its leadership team.
By 9:30 Tuesday night, senior GOP aides were not sure if Cantor would stay on in leadership as a lame duck for the remainder of his term, or if he would resign immediately and set off a leadership race that would be certain to draw contenders from several ideological wings of the party.
Boehner’s own standing in the conference has been unsteady in recent months, the result of a constant will-he-or-won’t-he campaign of whispers about whether he will retire at the end of the year. The speaker, 64, and majority leader, who turned 51 on Friday, have had a sometimes combative relationship in their nearly six years together leading the House Republicans.
After taking control of the House in 2011, Boehner made two attempts, in 2011 and 2012, to secure a $4 trillion spending deal with Obama to tame the federal debt; it would have included higher taxes on the wealthy. Both times Cantor opposed the deal, only to have Republicans ultimately surrender control of the House floor on Jan. 1, 2013, to Democrats to pass an agreement that increased taxes on the wealthy but left in place tax cuts for the vast majority of workers.
Since that tumultuous period, Cantor has played the role of a more loyal deputy to Boehner, with little daylight between the two men on strategy. The No. 3 GOP leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), was once seen as weak after a series of failed votes in 2013, but he worked his relationships with fellow lawmakers so aggressively that some believed Cantor and McCarthy would be elevated to the No. 1 and No. 2 slots without too much trouble.
The improved relationship may be best symbolized by Cantor’s move in late March to hand-deliver a $5,000 campaign check to Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho), a Boehner acolyte who had often been publicly distrustful of Cantor’s motives. Simpson became a target of tea party groups in his primary race this spring, and Cantor’s move to support a close Boehner friend demonstrated that he was looking for broad support in the conference.
However, his embrace of the establishment left some of his more conservative allies uneasy. Some began working with outside activists, trying to determine if there could be a challenge to Cantor whenever Boehner retired.
On Tuesday night, a large group of right-wing leaders was dining at the Northern Virginia home of L. Brent Bozell III, a longtime conservative activist and chairman of ForAmerica, a group that had targeted Cantor throughout the primary. Sitting around the table, eating pasta and toasting the sudden development were members of the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, Tea Party Patriots and the Family Research Council.
Bozell and others there said they would soon push Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R) to challenge Boehner or run for majority leader, believing that the conservative Texan and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee could use Cantor’s defeat to climb the ladder.
“Jeb is a strong candidate, and Boehner has got to be worried that maybe it’s time for him to step aside,” Bozell said. “We’re just stunningly happy and ready to continue this fight and change the rest of the House leadership.”
Cantor’s loss deals a serious blow to the efforts he helped lead in trying to create a new brand for Republicans that would appeal to suburban and independent voters. It began more than a year ago, with his “Making Life Work” agenda, and continued into this spring as he tried to tame some of his state’s most fervent conservative ideologues.
Trying to thread the political needle on immigration, Cantor adopted a position that supported citizenship for children brought to the country illegally. He promoted this view in an interview Friday, saying smaller, step-by-step approaches could work. “I will not bring that amnesty bill up for a vote on the House floor,” he told the CBS affiliate in Richmond.
This position, however, opened Cantor up to charges from Dave Brat, the professor who took more than 55 percent of the vote Tuesday, that he favored “amnesty” for some illegal immigrants. “One you announced that kids are welcome, they’re going to head in,” Brat told a conservative interviewer.
Some GOP strategists said Cantor lost touch with his district as he focused more on his national leadership role and on securing votes inside the GOP caucus for his own elevation. On Tuesday, he gave no indication of what was about to hit him.
He spent the afternoon shepherding across the House floor bills to revamp VA hospitals and funding for transportation and community development projects.
“Washington is not here to oppose individuals who want to take risk and build jobs,” Cantor told reporters in the morning, “but we’re here to try and ensure that the environment is such that they can keep more of their hard-earned money to create those jobs.”
Tuesday night, he lost his own job.
Robert Costa, Wesley Lowery and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.