WASHINGTON — When the postmortem of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s startling defeat Tuesday night is written, it will contain a multitude of interrelated reasons for his brutal loss to an underfunded and little-known GOP primary opponent.
What is already clear, though, is that the defeat of the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives is bound to have reverberating political and legislative consequences, and throw an already dysfunctional Congress into even more chaos.
Perhaps the clearest fallout from Cantor’s defeat — aside from the end of his rise through the ranks of the House Republican leadership — is the demise of already dim prospects for passing comprehensive immigration reform in the House. Although the majority leader was hardly a champion for reform, he had indicated he would be open to supporting some eventual legislation.
Cantor dodged when asked if he would support a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 13 million immigrants. And he was not actively working to bring a bill to the floor. Still, his opponent, tea party activist David Brat, who ran to the right of him, made his immigration stance a major issue in the campaign, taking a hard line against illegal immigration and alleging that Cantor supported “amnesty.”
“I think it was a 100 to 1 shot yesterday and it’s a 1,000 to 1 shot today,” said John Pitney, a professor of political science and former congressional aide, of getting immigration reform across the finish line.
Even the perception that Cantor’s tepid support for immigration reform contributed to his loss is enough to scare an already nervous GOP caucus from embracing controversial issues and to give those already opposed another reason to dig in their heels.
“It takes one case to make members of Congress very skittish, and in politics anecdotes often trump data,” Pitney said. “So you can point to all the members who survived, but if you’re a member of Congress who is paranoid about political survival, the example of Eric Cantor outweighs all of those.”
A host of factors played into Cantor’s loss, some analysts have pointed out. And it’s misguided to extrapolate larger lessons about the national political mood based on 65,000 votes.
Cantor may have really only been felled by local issues. As a member of the Republican leadership, he did not frequently make it back to his district and spent more time at high-dollar fundraisers than glad-handing outside the local Costco.
“I guarantee you, people in his district said, ‘If you want to be in the leadership, you do that on your time — we’re paying you to make sure we get our Social Security checks and that you come to our Little League games,’” said Rich Galen, a GOP consultant and former aide to the House Republican leadership. “Exactly the same people who had no idea that this was coming at Cantor are right now predicting what’s going to happen next with a great sense of certainty.”
Moreover, other Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, handily won their primaries among conservative voters while still supporting immigration reform.
On Capitol Hill, there was uneasiness about what Cantor’s loss meant for governing and other legislative priorities that called for bipartisan cooperation, or at least civility.
“My concern is that a lot of things are going to be dead and pushed aside,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said Wednesday on MSNBC. “I’m concerned that the Ted Cruz supporters, the Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning. Thank God there’s no debt ceiling bill coming up. Thank God there’s no way to shut the government down in the next few months, because I think we’ll get bogged down in those side issues. I think we’re going to see basically the status quo over the next six months.”
Cantor, although no ally of President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, helped broker a two-year budget deal in December that brought an end to the vicious recurring battles over funding the government and avoiding a debt ceiling catastrophe. Among congressional leadership, he was seen as a figure who could be counted on to bring insurgent GOP members into the fold.
Contenders for his replacement include Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who are both favorites of the conservative wing of the GOP caucus. And both are weighing bids for the position. Cantor announced Wednesday that he will step down from his post as House majority leader on July 31.
In the aftermath of his loss, the conservative wing of the GOP already seemed to be emboldened, seeing the defeat as a validation of its take-no-prisoners approach to slashing spending.
“This election should be a reminder to all in Congress — Republicans and Democrats alike — that the conservative base is alive and well, and the American people will hold us all accountable,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a press release. “Each of us needs to do what we said we would do and tell the truth. Washington needs to listen to the people, stop spending money we don’t have, and stand up and defend the Constitution.”
“Conservative groups are going to be parading Eric Cantor’s scalp,” Pitney said. “At least for the time being, the conservatives are getting a psychological boost.”
Tom Davis, a former seven-term Republican congressman from Virginia, said Cantor ultimately paid the price for governing, instead of just posturing.
“Being in the Republican leadership and having to sit down and produce legislative products and having to negotiate with the president on issues conflicted with what his Republican base wanted,” he said. “They wanted someone who was going to get in the president’s face and shout. He was not fulfilling that role.”