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Cantor Loses to Tea Party Candidate in Va. Upset

Cantor Loses to Tea Party Candidate in Va. Upset

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 11, 2014

In the biggest -- and most surprising -- upset in recent history, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his re-election bid Tuesday to conservative challenger David Brat in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

The defeat of the second-highest-ranking House Republican rocked Virginia, Washington, D.C., and a party that had been trumpeting establishment victories over Tea Party opponents in primary elections this year. Well known for his political savvy and ambition, Cantor had built a national profile and cultivated relationships with new conservative lawmakers who came into Congress with Tea Party-fueled momentum. The seven-term lawmaker was widely considered to be next in line for speaker should John Boehner leave that post.

Cantor’s defeat threatens to put the House GOP conference in chaos: A handful of determined colleagues are already eyeing his leadership post while others may be increasingly concerned about their security given an environment that helped topple the party’s second in command. Tuesday's results mark the first time a sitting House majority leader has ever lost a re-election bid.

Current Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and conservative Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas are reportedly eying the No. 2 leadership spot. Cantor’s impending exit also puts the spotlight on such lawmakers as Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, and Georgia Rep. Tom Price.

Cantor’s loss might also ensure that Boehner stays on, with no other obvious successor ready to run the chamber, a GOP source told RCP.

(Boehner released a statement lauding Cantor as “a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing. My thoughts are with him and Diana and their kids tonight.”)

Democrats pounced on the Virginia results, which virtually upended the campaign narrative that had formed around recent establishment wins, a trend that projected the possible demise of the Tea Party and the rise of a prepared establishment that had learned from lessons of the past two cycles.

“Eric Cantor is the personification of frustration with Washington, and House Republicans should be terrified of the backlash from the voters who have been alienated by their race to the right,” said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm.

Virginia strategist Larry Sabato said Democrats in the state might have turned out in the open primary to help defeat Cantor. Notably, national Tea Party groups such as Club did not spend money on this race, as Brat’s campaign was a true grassroots endeavor.

Cantor raised and spent a significant amount of money on his re-election bid, though he remained in Washington during the day on Tuesday, casting votes and attending the weekly leadership press conference.

While his loss headlined the night, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the Senate’s immigration reform bill, beat back six primary challengers to decisively win the GOP nomination in his quest for a third term.

After 2010 gains led Republicans to the House majority, Cantor built alliances with up- and-coming conservatives and helped establish the “Young Guns” program. He led Republicans to squeeze concessions from Democrats during the debt ceiling drama in 2011. After the 2012 elections that delivered Democratic victories in the White House, Senate and House, Cantor led the charge in re-branding the party and shaping his conference’s agenda.

The incumbent was financially well prepared for his primary. He raised a whopping $5.4 million this cycle and appeared to be in the driver’s seat as Election Day approached. Last week, the campaign released an internal poll showing the majority leader 34 points ahead, according to the Washington Post.

Cantor ran ads against Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College, tying him to former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, and painting him as a liberal. Brat raised only $200,000 and spent $122,000 on this race.

The Tea Party-backed challenger in turn portrayed his opponent as too liberal for the Richmond-area district, pointing specifically to immigration reform and Cantor’s support for a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. He also characterized the majority leader as a Washington insider who oversaw increases to the debt ceiling and budgets that funded the health care law.

Cantor circulated campaign fliers, however, touting his push against “amnesty” in any reform package. Cantor’s defeat may have further closed the window on any possible reform legislation, and it figures to spook other members of the Republican conference.

But there were warning signs of Cantor’s vulnerability. He was booed by Tea Party activists at a Richmond speaking engagement last month, the Washington Post reported.

Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham also campaigned against Cantor in the state, blasting him on immigration. “He’s all in for amnesty,” she asserted.

And in a sign about how other Republicans may be nervous, Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie quickly embraced Brat in a tweet: “Congrats to @DaveBratVA7th on tonight's win. Looking forward to a winning ticket in November!”

Brat will square off next against Jack Trammell, another fellow Randolph-Macon professor, who won the Democratic nomination. (Cantor could run in the general election as a write-in candidate, however.)

Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report.    

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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