WASHINGTON — The stunning defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a tea party primary challenger will roil the House for the rest of this session and the next Congress, probably ending the slim hopes for any bipartisan accords on issues such as immigration.
Cantor has represented the sprawling Virginia district that stretches from Richmond to the Washington exurbs since 2001 and was widely considered a likely House speaker someday. He was beaten by David Brat, a college professor and conservative Republican who accused Cantor of being too willing to accommodate Democrats on issues such as immigration and fiscal matters.
In a strange twist, Cantor was seen in Washington as among the most inflexible party-liners among top House Republican leaders. He also is especially close to Wall Street interests. It’s worth noting that Cantor’s district, while Republican, isn’t exactly the Deep South and Barack Obama won more than 40 percent of the vote in the last two elections.
The Virginia result, coupled with a right-wing candidate forcing veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a runoff, undercuts the Republican establishment’s narrative that the tea party is in eclipse and that lawmakers don’t have to protect their flank. The message surely will resonate in the House, and possibly among Senate Republicans too.
It means that the remaining four months of this session will be dominated by internal jockeying for leadership posts among the majority House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner may escape without a challenger but there will be intense rivalry for the No. 2 and No. 3 House posts. The top contenders will be House Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, who would like Cantor’s job, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. Emboldened by the shocking Cantor upset, the tea party caucus almost certainly will demand one of the top three leadership posts for one of their own. The most likely standard bearers from this contingent might be Louisiana’s Steve Scalise or Georgia’s Tom Price.
Legislatively this seems to doom any chance for an immigration bill in this Congress and perhaps in the next one too. Cantor opposed the bipartisan Senate-passed immigration bill, which offered an eventual pathway to citizenship, but was interested in fashioning a more conservative-friendly reform bill. Brat attacked him for being too moderate on this.
In South Carolina the tea party suffered a setback when incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham easily survived a challenge from his right flank. However, the inescapable conclusion one should draw is that defeat of the House majority leader will resonate in Republican ranks. In the process, the Republican House caucus also loses its only Jewish member.
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Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.