There were menacing signs for U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Few paid them any mind.
Cantor’s shockingly lopsided loss last night to tea party-backed challenger Dave Brat for the 7th District seat he first won in 2000 was a crashing end to an otherwise steady trajectory that Cantor expected would lead to the speakership. It was presaged by two little-noticed internal GOP battles.
In March — in Cantor’s home county of Henrico — tea partyers and libertarians, disdainful of the congressman’s more traditional brand of Republicanism, blocked his forces from using a practice known as “slating” to take control of the county delegation to the party’s 7th District convention.
Then, in May, at the district convention a short distance from the outer Richmond subdivision where Cantor lives, the same coalition of grass-roots insurrectionists voted out Cantor’s handpicked district chairman, Linwood Cobb, and replaced him with Fred Gruber, a tea party activist from rural Louisa County.
The defeat of the second-most powerful member of the House is a signal that Virginia, despite its increasingly purple hue, is a battleground on which Republican newcomers — furious over runaway federal spending, health care reform and the nation’s porous borders — remain ascendant.
Their dominance is evident, too, at the Jefferson-designed statehouse, where the threat of Brat-like challenges from the right to Republican incumbents in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate is steeling their resistance to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposal to further expand Obamacare with billions in federal Medicaid dollars.
Nationally, Cantor’s loss marks the first time since 1994 that a member of the House leadership was toppled. That year, the casualty was Democratic Speaker Tom Foley of Washington state, felled by midterm discontent with Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But not since 1966 has such a stunning primary loss been seen in Virginia. The power of newly enfranchised African-American voters and rapid growth in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington cost two Old South-style Democrats their seats: U.S. Rep. Howard W. Smith and U.S. Sen. A. Willis Robertson.
Smith, as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, had long blocked civil rights advances that ultimately proved his undoing. Robertson also was caught in the downdraft.
In Tuesday’s primary, Cantor was trapped in a crossfire over immigration reform. He attempted to strike a hard line against amnesty, dramatically scuttling a House vote on legislation that would make it easier for illegal immigrants serving in the U.S. military to become citizens.
But Brat, echoed by high-profile conservative broadcasters and pundits, attacked Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, as soft on immigration. They noted that he’d spoken of reaching an accommodation with the Obama White House, perhaps allowing children born in this country to illegal immigrants to naturalize.
Cantor’s maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.
Further, Cantor — a self-styled Young Gun, who along with Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, was a symbol of Yuppie Republicanism — became a distant figure to many of his Virginia constituents, seen only on Sunday talk shows and in the pages of national newspapers.
Cantor’s priority was traveling the country, raising money from corporate and financial leaders. The torrent of Cantor-generated cash would shore up a smaller but more influential constituency for the often-aloof lawyer: a handful of conservatives within the Republican caucus who would decide the speakership.
A significant wedge of that money went to Cantor’s congressional campaign: $2 million, of which more than $1 million was spent on television advertising and direct mail that attempted to brand Brat an ivory tower academic — he’s a college economics professor — who is soft on higher taxes.
The claim was based on Brat’s appointment to a gubernatorial economic advisory board. Brat served under Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat who several times tried and failed to raise taxes, and Bob McDonnell, a Republican who succeeded in winning new taxes for roads.
McDonnell’s promise-breaking tax increase further stirred within the state GOP a tea party fury that raged again Tuesday, claiming its biggest target this year — not just in Virginia, but the nation.
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