In what is being dubbed a political earthquake by dumbfounded pundits and pols who never saw it coming, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — the second most powerful Republican in the House and considered unbeatable in his Richmond, Virginia-based district — was defeated for re-nomination.
With near-final primary returns in from the Republican primary in Virginia's 7th District, 14-year incumbent Cantor lost to first-time candidate and tea party favorite Dave Brat by a margin of 55.5% to 45.5%. A professor at Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Va., Brat hit hard at Cantor's vote to lift the debt ceiling and support for comprehensive immigration reform — both issues that resonate strongly among tea partiers.
Cantor now becomes the first Member of the House Republican leadership team to lose re-nomination since National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan was defeated by the little-known Pete Hoekstra in 1992.
Tuesday's results are even more incredible when one realizes Cantor spent an estimated $5.4 million to only $200,000 by Brat. Turnout was minuscule, with 65,000 out of 474,000 eligible voters (14 percent of the district) going to the polls.
As national GOP operatives and political prognosticators scrambled to find out how the "earthquake" happened in Virginia-7, its tremors on national politics were already being felt. Coupled with Mississippi Republicans voting in their primary to force veteran Sen. Thad Cochran into a run-off later this month, the outright defeat of Cantor is firm evidence that the tea party is still a potent (and under-estimated) force within the Republican Party.
Other upcoming primary challenges to Republican senators and House Members are sure to be watched more closely by the press and taken more seriously by the incumbents.
In addition, not only does Cantor's never-expected exit from the House remove him as the heir apparent to Speaker John Boehner when he relinquishes his gavel but sets the stage for a fresh battle over the majority leadership. With Cantor's successor to be decided by House Republicans after November, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California is the front-runner.
But given the increasing impatience among more conservative Republicans against the party "establishment" in primaries, it seems a foregone conclusion McCarthy will be challenged by a colleague more in tune with the conservative wing such as Georgia's Rep. Tom Price (who lost a close race for House GOP Conference Chairman last year).
As to why he lost, Richmond sources tell Newsmax that Cantor's campaign repeatedly calling attention to his clout in Washington worked against him. As one area GOP leader told us, "Eric had this position and might have been speaker but what good was it doing for us, we asked?"
"And I was surprised to find Cantor commercials painting Brat as a liberal!" John Ambrose, retired vice president of J. Sargent Reynolds College in Richmond, told Newsmax, " Because Brat had served on the state's Economic Advisory Council under [former Democratic Gov. and current Sen.] Tim Kaine, the Cantor spots claimed he was a liberal. [Members of the Council have historically included Virginians of both political parties regardless of who is governor].
"If Eric Cantor had played it straight on the issues, he might have won. But instead, he tried to call someone who had the endorsements of Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham a liberal, for goodness sake! All that did was anger and energize Brat's supporters."
Ambrose's wife Barbara noted that Brat's few commercials were on the local Fox TV affiliate and WRVA-AM Radio, a talk radio haven. Both outlets were favorite of area conservatives.
On air and on the stump, Brat hit hard on three themes: that Cantor was "out of touch," that his vote to lift the debt ceiling made possible the funding of Obamacare, and, in the twilight of the campaign, that Cantor's support for immigration reform meant he favored "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Perhaps expecting this upset, Richmond Democrats today finally recruited educator Jack Trammel as their nominee for the seat at the last moment allowed under the law. Like Brat, Trammel teaches at Randolph Macon College.
But in a district that has had a Republican congressman since 1980 and gave Mitt Romney 57% of its votes in 2012, few expect a Democratic upset. Republicans of all stripes made it clear they were rallying to the new nominee.
"Eric Cantor and his family have been my friends for years," former Virginia Gov. and Republican National Chairman Jim Gilmore told Newsmax. "We thank him for his service in the House. Now, I'm going to do everything I can to hold this seat for Republicans by electing David Brat."
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