Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | June 11, 2014

Virginia Republicans Decide They Want Someone Even More Conservative Than Eric Cantor

Virginia Congressional Districts, 113th Congress

Last night, Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, lost the primary election to continue serving as the representative from Virginia’s 7th Congressional District.

He is the first House majority leader to lose a primary since…ever. Since the post was created in 1899.

When the voters decide that Eric friggin’ Cantor is too liberal (or too squishy), then… I don’t know. I am grasping for the right words.

Ok. So, first, what does this portend for the GOP House leadership team? Cantor’s defeat means that, after the November elections, there will be an open seat in the game of musical chairs of the House leadership. (Unless the Democrats regain control of the House — ha! — but let’s be realistic here.) This is what the GOP House leadership looks like right now.

Leadership Position Member Congressional District
Speaker John Boehner Ohio 8th
Majority Leader Eric Cantor Virginia 7th
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy California 23rd
Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam Illinois 6th

When Congress reconvenes in 2015, with Cantor no longer in the bunch, the leadership may look something like this:

Leadership Position Member Congressional District
Speaker John Boehner Ohio 8th
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy California 23rd
Majority Whip Peter Roskam Illinois 6th
Chief Deputy Whip Cathy McMorris Rodgers Washington 5th

I assume that Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chair of the House Republican Conference, will succeed Peter Roskam as Chief Deputy Whip. Then Vice Chair Lynn Jenkins (Kansas 2nd) will succeed Rodgers as Chair of the House Republican Conference.

All of this assumes that the incumbents listed above (Boehner, McCarthy, Roskam, etc.) all win reelection, and that John Boehner remains Speaker. (That last bit may be up in the air.)

Turning back to Cantor’s story and Virginia, we might reasonably ask: how did this happen? By my lights, this is a bigger upset than Tom Daschle losing his Senate seat in a general election. How often does a party primary (and win against) one of its own legislative leaders.

Some reactions and quick analysis:

John Dickerson says that the potential for immigration reform (among other things) worked against Cantor:

On immigration, he was either wrong or perhaps worse, he was acting just like an insider—squishy on principles. Virginia’s GOP primary voters wanted someone who was a consistent conservative. Or maybe it was because Cantor had lost touch with his district and was seen as a backer of Wall Street elites, not middle-class folks. Or maybe people bought Brat’s claim that Cantor didn’t fight Obama hard enough (the irony being that Obama really dislikes Cantor). Whatever the reasons, the lesson for other Republicans will be clear: If you aren’t consistent, doom can come swiftly and unexpectedly.

If you do get into trouble, even the traditional weaponry might not save you. Cantor outspent his opponent 20-to-1. Cantor had the power to deliver things to his district. Cantor was seen as next in line to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House, which would have meant even more power and prestige for his district. This is an undiluted version of the lesson being taught in Mississippi where Sen. Thad Cochran’s incumbency—and the funnel of federal spending that goes with it—aren’t protecting him from a Tea Party challenger.

David Weigel:

Conservatives came to view Cantor as at best unreliable, at worst an outright enemy. Brat entered the race against him in January 2014, with no obvious support beyond what he could get from talk-radio personalities. Ann Coulter endorsed him, as did Mark Levin (author of a book that argues for a new constitutional convention to enforce conservatism), as did Laura Ingraham.

Cantor had no idea how to fight back.

At Politico, Jake Sherman and Alex Isenstadt write that Cantor made some tactical errors:

Cantor’s aides take pride in running a strong race against any candidate — Democrat or Republican. But the $2 million Cantor spent to brand Brat as a liberal professor may have had the reverse effect, people close to him and Brat say. It showed voters there was an alternative to Cantor -and that was exactly what many voters wanted.

“The negative ads calling me a liberal professor at first they started off with kind of comic strips,” Brat said in an interview here late Tuesday night. “And everyone kind of liked them. Me and my boy watched them the first night and kind of died laughing. We thought they were funny.”

“They gave me $1 million in name ID and I think that got us going, I think. I’m not a political expert on that, but I think they kind of saw that was happening and they made those a little darker, and they were black and green and looked like a Star Wars thing by the time they got done with it – it made me look like a pretty serious guy.”

Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post:

Anytime an incumbent loses — and particularly a well-funded incumbent like Cantor — there are lots of reasons for the defeat, but this one will be cast as a rebuke of any moderation on immigration. Brat savaged Cantor as “100 percent all-in” on amnesty and accused him of “bobbing and weaving” on the issue. Any Republican member of Congress who was even contemplating going a step or two out on a political limb to vote for some elements of immigration reform will stop thinking that way immediately. Not only is immigration reform a no-go for Republicans in this election, but it may well be off the table — assuming Republicans control the House — for the next several years.

Ezra Klein (H/T: Erik Loomis):

If Republicans hadn’t scared Senator Arlen Specter into the Democratic Party and if Democrats hadn’t kept Senator Joe Lieberman on their side Obamacare would never have passed. If the Tea Party didn’t keep knocking off viable Republicans Mitch McConnell would have been Senate Majority Leader since 2010. If Mitt Romney could have run as the Massachusetts moderate he once was Obama might well have lost in 2012. It’s possible Republicans will now lose in Virginia’s 7th District. The Tea Party is good at policing purity but they’re terrible at winning power.

Nate Silver:

The incidence of successful primary challenges to Republican incumbents is high by historical standards. But we knew that already, and it’s not all that high in an absolute sense. Cantor’s defeat doesn’t tell us that much about the risk — nor did McConnell’s victory. We can perform an autopsy on Cantor’s campaign — and he should probably fire his pollster. But many Republicans won renomination easily under similar circumstances. Primary challenges are stochastic and there is some danger in “overfitting” our model and overreacting to this one.

I’d expect few people to react in this way. The tea party versus establishment storyline is a great storyline for the news media. It’s a great storyline for Democrats. It’s a great story line for the tea party. It’s a terrible story line for the Republican establishment — but they may be scared. Unlike earthquakes, which don’t give a rip about how we react to them, politicians do. So there may be a number of aftershocks, even if they’re man-made.

Image Credit: Virginia Congressional Districts, 113th Congress, National Atlas of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons.



  1. The point about name ID is probably right. I think the McDaniel campaign was the net winner on the affair of Rose Cochran, because lots of low-info voters found out a Republican was challenging Thad Cochran.

    • I think you’re right. Pro tip: when you’re an incumbent running against a nobody, don’t spend millions on ads to turn him into a somebody.

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