Why Eric Cantor’s Stunning Defeat is a Major Victory for the Tea Party
Mere hours after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to economics professor David Brat in Virginia’s 7th district, the GOP establishment got to work trying to spin the resounding defeat in their favor. Their goal: to convince everyone that the first defeat of an incumbent House Majority Leader since the position was established was a fluke, with negligible implications for primary races throughout the country. Cantor’s defeat, they claimed, was predictable in retrospect. Eric Cantor neglected his district in favor of fundraising for the Republican Party. Tea Party groups invested little money or effort. It was in an extremely conservative district. Immigration played a disproportionate role in the race.
Empty words, even if they’re true. Brat, a no-name Tea Party candidate with a meager war chest of $200,000 thrashed Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader who raised $5.5 million and boasted a huge organization to secure his reelection. No spin can change these facts. The Tea Party is a fundamentally Astroturf movement, but in this particular case, it won a grassroots victory. A small number of committed activists seized control of the local party apparatus and beat Cantor despite his overwhelming advantages. Whether or not the Tea Party can replicate this success at the end of a primary cycle being fought in an ever-shrinking number of competitive races is an open question. But today, the Tea Party can brag about a victory of radical conservative principles over establishment cash.
Brat emerged victorious in large part by underlining Cantor’s “lenient” stance on immigration. In truth, Cantor’s so-called leniency was mostly a matter of rhetoric. The Majority Leader was the key GOP establishment figure standing in the way of immigration reform, overriding Speaker John Boehner’s more pragmatic instincts on the issue. But in nominally leaving open the possibility of compromise, even though he never intended it, Cantor stoked the paranoid, xenophobic delusions of his party’s base. For them, Cantor’s agreement on policy was not enough. He had to talk like them and thereby forfeit his gruel-thin pretense of attempting to actually govern.
So what does this mean for Democrats? In the short-term, it’s a setback. The already-slim prospect of immigration reform has been crushed, for at least this year and perhaps for the duration of the next Congress. Establishment Republicans otherwise willing to compromise on immigration, will surely not risk offending the base now. One possible silver lining for Democrats is that Obama could halt deportations by executive order on the grounds that the GOP is not interested in compromising on a pressing issue. This could create a backlash, but then again so does everything our first black president does. In the longer-term, the Republican Party’s refusal to take a more moderate tack on immigration will alienate not only the crucial Hispanic demographic, but also the majority of Americans who support some kind of immigration reform. Cantor’s defeat and its likely implications could come back to haunt the GOP in 2016, when the voting base doesn’t consist primarily of old, white, conservative-leaning voters. Furthermore, Democrats can hold out for a better deal than the one that failed last year, which accommodated the GOP a lot more than many liberals were comfortable with.
What does this mean for politics in general? Brat ran a populist campaign lambasting Cantor for his connections to Wall Street and lobbying firms (he got more money from the former than any other Congressman). Tea Party antipathy towards the financial elite could form a basis for common ground with the populist Left. Most likely, the differences between the two political poles are too great to transcend, but it’s an interesting possibility that could theoretically presage a populist surge in the coming years. Or, Cantor’s defeat could be a flash in the pan, significant only to political junkies and commentators. We’ll just have to wait and see.