Loss Leader

In Virginia, the Tea Party takes Eric Cantor down

In a Congress full of Machiavellian princes, majority leader Eric Cantor always counted himself a few steps ahead and twice as smart. He led Republicans to control of the House in 2010, scuttled a grand-bargain budget deal with President Obama a year later and steadily climbed the rungs of power. The speakership was next, clearly within his sight on June 10, when Cantor’s whole world imploded in a Republican-primary vote the power brokers never saw coming.

His error was as old as kingdoms. As Cantor mastered D.C.’s inside game, he lost touch with the people of central Virginia. “The reason we won this campaign–there’s just one reason,” his novice opponent, Dave Brat, told supporters after the upset. “Dollars do not vote. You do.”

A conservative economics professor at tiny Randolph-Macon College with a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, Brat beat Cantor with a campaign that spent less than $200,000–nearly as much as Cantor’s $4.7 million campaign spent on steak-house fundraisers alone. Just hours before the polls closed, Cantor’s staff was confident of victory, misreading the high turnout as a good sign. “What Brat did right was he showed up,” says a Republican consultant close to Cantor’s campaign. “He created a David-vs.-Goliath narrative.”

Cantor, meanwhile, had spent too much time inside the Beltway, had too many photos taken in the same room as President Obama and traveled the country too often to raise money for his party. Throughout his career, ambition was always the constant, while his methods and message wavered, especially in recent years as he served beside Speaker John Boehner.

“He tried to be all things to all people,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He’s been a moderate, a conservative, a Tea Partyer, a Boehner foe, a Boehner friend, for and against immigration reform.”

Cantor, who liked to brag that he occupied the same seat as James Madison, enjoyed the glory of the spotlight and big ideas. He would regularly launch new policy forays and Republican rebranding efforts. He started the Young Guns program, which helped Republicans take the House in 2010. A year later, Boehner appointed Cantor to the commission charged with brokering a debt deal with Obama. Sensing opportunity on the right, Cantor successfully worked to undermine the deal on behalf of Tea Party conservatives.

In recent months, however, he crossed those allies by siding with the business lobby on funding a U.S. export banking program and backing negotiations to move an immigration-reform bill this year. “That hurt,” says former Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican and a friend of Cantor’s. “What’s happened to the Republican Party in the last decade and a half is we’ve become a more blue collar, populist party. What used to be the country-club wing is now the truck-driver wing.”

A day after his defeat, Cantor appeared to give up the fight, announcing he would resign his leadership position on July 31. Back in Virginia, the contest will likely be livelier in the Randolph-Macon faculty lounge than at the ballot box. Brat’s Democratic opponent is a colleague from the same campus, sociology professor Jack Trammell, but party leaders have concluded that the district is too heavily Republican to pour much money into.

Liberals will try to chalk up Cantor’s defeat to the rightward drift in an already radicalized party. But the reality is more complex. On the same day that Cantor fell, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key backer of comprehensive immigration reform, coasted by his Tea Party opponents in deep red South Carolina despite significant right-wing opposition.

Which helps explain why Cantor’s failure says more about him than about his party and is, in that way, more epic. His ambition proved to be his undoing. Just as the highest rung appeared within reach, the people called him back home.


This appears in the June 23, 2014 issue of TIME.
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