Washington never saw it coming. He was supposed to be the next Speaker of the House. Instead, Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party challenger in resounding fashion Tuesday, an almost unprecedented defeat of an incumbent majority leader in a primary race. As the party leaders grasped for answers and conservatives gloated, one thing was undeniable: The defeat of the Virginia Republican was a wake-up call for establishment Republicans who only days ago thought they had finally put down the Tea Party insurgency that has rocked the GOP the past four years.
"[It's a] serious wake up call to all incumbents," said Scott Reed, the top political strategist for the establishment-friendly Chamber of Commerce. "Time for candidates to run like they are running for sheriff... not prime minister."
With more than 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cantor trailed Dave Brat, a little-known economics professor, 55% to 44%. Representing the congressional district centered in Richmond and being majority leader "has been one of the highest honors of my life,” Cantor said in a concession speech that lasted less than four minutes. "I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight and it's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country, I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us. So, I look forward to continue to fight with all of you for the things that we believe in."
Political observers and insiders scratching their heads for answers quickly homed in on the idea that Cantor was deemed insufficiently conservative on key issues like immigration reform, and not vocal enough in his opposition to President Barack Obama. Republicans sought to paint the result as a vote against Obama, not Cantor.
“The Obama Administration continues to crush the individual and every sector of the economy through bad policy, higher and higher taxes and an ever increasing regulatory burden on industry," former Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore said in a statement. "Tonight, the residents of Virginia’s 7th district expressed their outrage with President Obama by nominating David Brat to be the Republican Party’s nominee for Congress in my home district.”
Others pointed to Cantor's recent soft tone on immigration reform and his rhetoric on last year's government shutdown that excited activists but sent the GOP's poll numbers tanking nationally before the botched rollout of Obama's health care law refocused the political debate. And Cantor's stance and tone on immigration quickly topic No. 1 in the primary postmortems. Within minutes of Cantor wrapping up his concession speech, anti-immigration protesters stormed his victory party, Politico reports.
"My understanding from talking to people down in Richmond was that the real issues seem to be that he wasn’t strongly enough anti-immigration reform, that he voted to end the government shutdown and he voted to raise the debt ceiling," Bobbie Kilberg, who heads the Northern Virginia Technology Council and held a May fundraiser for Cantor, told TIME. "And you know, at some point in time, these people need to understand you just simply have to govern. These people need to understand that we need immigration reform. And these people need to understand that Eric Cantor was a conservative on all those issues. He was a mainstream conservative."
Democrats, who have been looking to paint the GOP into a demographic corner on immigration, were happy to point to that as an issue.
“Tonight’s election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration," New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said in a statement. The [South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham] path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat. Cantor’s defeat does not change the fundamental fact that Republicans will become a minority party if they don’t address our broken immigration system.”
Other Democrats cautioned against drawing too sweeping a conclusion on immigration, pointing to Graham's ability to stave off primary challengers in deep-red South Carolina.
But it's exceedingly rare for leaders of either party to lose in primary races, even as recent years have increasingly seen them become targets as they represent the face of big deals and compromises. Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, had little with which to wage war: He was sporting less than $84,000 in the bank at the end of May compared to Cantor’s $1.5 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings. What he had, however, was the support of Tea Party activists and conservative figures like Laura Ingraham, who were upset with Cantor’s openness to some elements of immigration reform. Cantor, who has an American Conservatives Union lifetime score of 96% and who opposed the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill last year, has said he’s open to working with the President on border security and passing some form of the DREAM Act, which gives children brought into the U.S. illegally a path to citizenship. He drew the ire of the grassroots for appearing at a summit organized by the Republican Main Stream Partnership, a group that campaigns against Tea Party candidates.
All of it ultimately proved too moderate for Cantor’s Richmond district, a seat once held by James Madison. And what tiny chance immigration reform might have had to pass this summer was likely wiped out with Cantor's loss.
"It's the most symbolic issue that captures the difference between myself and Eric Cantor in this race," Brat said of immigration.
Brat will now face Democratic nominee Jack Trammell, a professor at the same school, in the November general election, and despite Democratic hopes, he'll be the immediate front-runner in the heavily conservative district. “God acted through people on my behalf,” Brat said on Fox News shortly after his victory.
Cantor wasn't exactly caught sleeping. He spent $1 million in the weeks leading up to the primary on television ads calling Brat a “liberal college professor,” and sent out mailers boasting he’d blocked “amnesty” on Capitol Hill. Polling, what little there was of it, showed Cantor way ahead, though he was booed at a May meeting of Republican activists in his district, according to the Washington Post. Some observers cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions about immigration, and when the dust settles, it may prove that Cantor's problem was less ideology and more a sense that he stood more for his own ambition than for any definable policies. He frequently reinvented himself with splashy policy speeches, and toured the country raising money and gathering chits for an eventual run for House Speaker.
"Was immigration an issue? Yes. Was it the deciding factor to the tune of 11%? Not no, hell no. It’s a fairy tale," Virginia Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders said. "People talk. And they talk about Eric Cantor. 'Where is he?' His constituent services suck. He was never in the district. And when he was in the district and he went out, he had a [security] entourage with him. He was out gallivanting all over the country being a big deal and this is a lesson."
His defeat comes at the tail end of a primary season that has seen limited success for the Tea Party, though incumbent Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran could still lose in a primary runoff this month. And Cantor's exit will surely create a leadership vacuum on Capitol Hill. Widely seen as the front-runner for next Speaker, his departure makes it even more likely that House Speaker John Boehner will stick around.
“Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together," Boehner said in a statement late Tuesday. "He’s 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.”
Cantor can still run as a write-in candidate, but that seemed unlikely given the steep uphill battle for an incumbent already voted out. As the sun seemed to set on his political career, at least for now, allies remained dumbstruck.
"I can’t explain any of this. It really blows my mind," Kilberg said. "My guess would be that he’s so stunned now that he’s going to have to figure out what to do."
-with reporting by Zeke J Miller and Alex Rogers