The universal reaction to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss Tuesday night was a combination of shock and stunned disbelief. But it was as much a reflection of the status quo within a divided Republican Party, a condition that will continue to roil the GOP and challenge party leaders into the future.
There are no doubt particular reasons Cantor (Va.) lost to conservative Dave Brat in one of the biggest upsets in memory. Over the next few days, the majority leader, his team and other GOP strategists will try to sort through the rubble to make sense of what made no sense Tuesday night. At its core, the outcome meant that Cantor had lost touch with his constituents. But why?
That question is important, but in some ways it is a sideshow to the bigger issues that confront the party. These issues are not new — they are merely a continuation of the conflict that has played out time and again over the past five years with the rise of the tea party movement, keeping the GOP in an unsettled state. And these issues are not going away soon.
The party is split in many ways. There is the establishment wing, which may better be called the business wing. There is the tea party wing, which may be better called the populist, conservative, grass-roots insurgency. There is a House wing and a Senate wing, and they don’t always see the world in the same way. In the coming months, there will be a presidential candidate wing, and those who seek to join that wing will have the biggest challenges of all in trying to harmonize the fractious factions.
The GOP is divided over tone and style. Just how confrontational should or must the party be? When is compromise acceptable? At a time when many conservatives consider President Obama and the Democrats a threat to the country’s very foundation, how much leeway do party leaders have trying to govern cooperatively with the opposition? So far, leaders have been on a short leash.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been bedeviled by this problem ever since his party won control of the House in 2010, exercising his powers carefully and often defensively and at times being led by the demands of hard-liners. Cantor was the lieutenant who was thought to have the better antennae for the tea party wing. So much for that assumption.
The party is split by more than this, however, as conservative activists are quick to point out. Suggestions that the GOP is divided more stylistically than substantively draw quick rebukes from activists on the right, who point to any number of issues that have fractured the congressional party over the past few years.
One of the biggest is immigration. Cantor’s defeat seemingly reflects anger among conservatives about comprehensive immigration reform. It is an issue that has caused much anguish among GOP leaders, many of whom believe it is in the party’s best long-term interest to enact legislation as a first step toward competing for the support of Hispanic voters. And it continues to animate and energize conservative grass-roots activists who believe that lawbreaking should be treated as such and some of whom fear the implications of the country’s growing diversification.
But the anger about immigration plays out unevenly. On the night Cantor lost, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) romped to victory in his primary, winning 56 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field and avoiding a runoff. Graham has been one of the Republican Party’s most prominent advocates of comprehensive immigration reform. Why he escaped the wrath of the anti-immigration activists and Cantor did not contributed to the confusion about what happened in Virginia on Tuesday.
Throughout the spring, there have been suggestions — fueled in part by the news media — that the Republicans were engaged in a climactic battle between tea party insurgents and the party establishment. It has played out week by week, in North Carolina, in Nebraska, in Kentucky, in Mississippi, in Texas and now in Virginia and South Carolina. More are to come.
Certainly the establishment has won far more than it has lost in these direct confrontations. But by no means has it been a clean sweep or a clear vanquishing of what is called the tea party wing. For every victory by someone like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), there has been a good moment for the tea party, whether it be the victory of Ben Sasse in the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska or the virtual takeover of the Texas Republican Party by tea party sensibilities.
Anyone keeping score would be hard-pressed to declare a definitive winner. And that may be the real meaning of what happened in Virginia on Tuesday. The Republican Party is a coalition of generally like-minded people — a clearly conservative party that has become more conservative in the past few years — but a party nonetheless divided and facing many fights ahead.
This has been said many times: A party big enough to aspire to becoming a majority is a coalition of people and groups that don’t always see eye to eye. Reconciling those differences is the challenge and the obligation of party leaders. Rarely is that possible without occupying the White House, and that has become more and more obvious for the Republican Party in the past few years.
What happened to Cantor may be mostly a function of issues specific to his district and to his leadership and personality. As shocking as the outcome may be, however, it is another reminder of the instability within the conservative coalition. That’s not going to change overnight or anytime soon. It is the reality of today’s Republican Party.