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Cantor defeat sends shockwaves across politico universe

Dems: Tea party takes down one of their own

6/11/2014, 10:25 a.m.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivers a concession speech in Richmond with wife Diana at his side.

A raucous political meeting earlier in the campaign season made headlines as voters expressed their discontent over Cantor's leadership in the House, even after the majority leader had worked to curry favor with tea party lawmakers.

The willingness of GOP leaders to negotiate an end to the government shutdown last fall, rather than hold out for a long-shot repeal of President Obama's healthcare program, turned off the most conservative of Republicans both in Washington and at home.

Even more, Cantor's support for providing citizenship for young immigrants — he had promised but never delivered on a bill that would accomplish that goal — became a rallying cry of opposition from those who called it "amnesty."

Cantor, part of a new generation of Republican leaders who called themselves Young Guns, reacted in full force in recent weeks. He pummeled the airwaves, spending more than $5 million on the race, including a direct-mail piece that took a harder line against immigration reform than he previously had.

In many ways, however, the show of force gave more oxygen to Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College who had few resources and almost no outside cash to aid his underdog effort. To Cantor's millions, Brat raised only $200,000, and spent even less, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cantor's loss excised the top-ranking Republican official in Virginia, a perennial battleground in presidential years that presently has no statewide GOP officeholders. But the national import will probably be on the immigration issue. Among advocates for changing the law, the defeat is likely to quash any remaining hope for House action on legislation to provide a citizenship path for some immigrants.

Many had expected that the chamber might turn to the issue once primary season ended and lawmakers no longer had to worry about protecting their right flank.

Still, some suggested that opportunities remain for Republicans to move forward on immigration, and they took heart in Tuesday's primary success of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a GOP architect of immigration reform.

"Too bad Rep. Cantor didn't steal a page from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who leaned into the issue, was unapologetic about his principled stand and won his primary handily," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice.

It was not immediately clear what options, if any, Cantor might pursue for the general election in November. David Wasserman, a political analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Virginia's "sore loser" law prevented him from running as an independent. He may be able to mount a write-in bid, but that would complicate the race among Brat, Democrat Jack Trammel and several other candidates.

His defeat feeds into existing debate over party leadership on Capitol Hill, as some lawmakers look to the eventual departure of House Speaker John A. Boehner, to whom Cantor was seen as a likely successor.

The No. 3 Republican in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, has made no secret of his own ambitions to move up the House ladder. The tea party's new momentum will all but certainly lead some of the chamber's hard-right leaders to make a play for a spot.

After a season in which many tea party candidates were sidelined by establishment Republicans, Tuesday was a night of celebration for the movement's adherents.

"People vote and money doesn't win," Zachary Werrell, Brat's 23-year-old campaign manager, said at the election night party in a parking lot outside an office park.

Werrell acknowledged that the immigration issue "was big and drove a lot of people." But there was more to it, he said:

"They should think about the consequences of letting money and power go to your head in Washington."