House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to a tea party-backed challenger in the Virginia Republican primary Tuesday.
David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, defied common wisdom, Washington pundits, and vast disparity in campaign cash to oust Cantor, the second most powerful member of the House of Representatives.
With all precincts reporting, the unofficial results show Brat with 55.55 percent of the votes to Cantor’s 44.45 percent.
Cantor, who came to the House in 2001 with the backing of the GOP establishment, has always been seen as a pro-business Republican. When John Boehner, R-Ohio, assumed the Minority Leader’s role in 2009, Cantor came along as his whip.
But with the election of ultra-conservative, tea party-allied members in 2010, Cantor carefully positioned himself as the member of the House leadership conservatives could trust to pull now-Speaker Boehner to the right. Many expected Cantor to vie for the Speaker’s gavel when Boehner moved on (if not before).
As late as Tuesday morning, most poll watchers expected Brat’s challenge to fizzle. With “Dewey defeats Truman” bravado, the primary day Washington Post proclaimed:
A conservative challenger is expected to fall far short of defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in Tuesday’s congressional primary. Disorganization and poor funding have stymied the campaign of tea party activist David Brat, even as he tapped into conservative resentment toward a party leader who has been courting the Republican right for years.
The question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be. If he wins by more than 20 points, it will likely quell rumblings about his popularity back home. If Brat falls within 10 points of the seven-term congressman, it could stoke them.
The Post (which has now pulled this version and replaced it with a report on Tuesday’s results) cited Brat’s seemingly unsettling behavior of failing to show up to D.C. meetings with moneyed conservative activists, and Brat’s campaign coffers noticed, too. By Election Day, Cantor had outraised Brat by about 25 to 1, and Brat had only $40,000 in the bank as of his late March filing.
The Beltway soothsayers no doubt also took a peak at internal polls by the one candidate who had the budget to conduct them. Cantor “shared” that poll, which had him up by 34 points, with the D.C. media, and the D.C. media happily shared it with everyone else. (A Daily Caller/Vox Populi survey also showed Cantor ahead, with an 11-point edge on Monday.)
Primaries are traditionally harder to poll than general elections, as judging just who is a likely voter and how large (or how small, really) the turnout will be makes voter models just slightly more scientific than dowsing.
With the loss, Cantor not only embarrasses his Beltway buddies, he becomes the first sitting Majority Leader to lose a primary election since the position was created in 1899. (The late Democratic Speaker Tom Foley of Washington lost in the 1994 general election, but that was to a GOP challenger in a Republican “wave” year.)
Virginia’s so-called “sore loser” law prevents Cantor from running as an independent or attempting a write in campaign in the November general.
Brat, who said in an interview with Fox News the he is “running 100 percent on main stream Republican policies,” will face Democratic nominee Jack Trammell, also, as it turns out, a professor at Randolph-Macon College. Prior to Tuesday’s results, Rothberg Political Report called the district “Safe Republican.”
The Virginia result scrambles both the House calendar and the campaign narrative. As Majority Leader, Cantor is responsible for the House agenda, whether his newly hatched lame duck status frees or shackles him remains to be seen.
Also awaiting 20-20 hindsight, the political analysis of the race. Did Cantor fall because of his votes on the debt ceiling compromise or his support for a watered-down GOP version of the Dream Act, or was this more a result of Cantor, busy with his fundraising and party-building chores outside his district, not, as one anonymous GOP strategist told the Washington Post, tending the weeds in his own backyard?
Or is it that Virginia GOP primary voters, never happy with Cantor’s business ties or national ambitions, decided to ignore the predictions and take the opportunity to decide for themselves?
“I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight,” said Cantor to his election-night supporters gathered in a Richmond hotel ballroom. “It’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”
In Tuesday’s other closely watched race, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, once thought to be vulnerable to a challenge from the right, easily defeated six opponents and garnered over 50 percent of the vote to win his primary outright. Graham will face Democratic State Senator Brad Hutto in November.