House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia listens at right as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Cantor lost his congressional primary to David Brat, a political newcomer backed by Tea Party groups, among which Cantor was once popular.
Just a few weeks ago, I described the Tea Party challenge to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor as "pesky," because that's what it seemed like—unpleasant for Cantor, but ultimately futile. Well it turned out to be something more, as Cantor lost his primary yesterday to the colorfully named David Brat, a professor at Randolph Macon College. As of their FEC filings in the middle of May, Brat had spent $122,793, while Cantor had spent $5,026,626, or over 40 times as much. Brat won easily, which can happen when you have a low-turnout primary in which angry people are more likely to turn out than contented people.
But since the second-highest-ranking Republican in the House just got defeated, you're going to hear a lot about how the Tea Party has risen again, and also about how comprehensive immigration reform—which Cantor supported (at least in theory) and which became a big issue in this race—is now as dead as a doornail. There's only one problem with that story.
It's true that other Republican members of Congress are going to look at Cantor's defeat as a cautionary tale. After all, if you're a backbencher who just saw the Majority Leader get crushed by some nobody in substantial part because of immigration, it's not exactly going to give you a lot of enthusiasm for sticking your neck out for the good of the national party when it might cost you your seat. But it wasn't as though there was much of a chance for immigration reform to pass even before this. To put some rather arbitrary numbers on it, the odds went from 20-1, or maybe 50-1, to 100-1. In other words, immigration reform probably wasn't going to happen before, and it probably isn't going to happen now.
The reason was, and remains, simple. The national GOP would like to pass immigration reform to convince the fast-growing Hispanic electorate that Republicans don't hate them. But for the individual Republican members of the House, most of whom come from safe Republican districts, immigration reform poses nothing but danger. Their only real threat comes from the right in primaries, and supporting comprehensive reform is one of the quickest ways to get a primary challenge.
So nothing has really changed; we've just gotten a rather dramatic reminder of what has been true all along. As for Congressman Cantor, he has two choices now: He can try to mount a write-in campaign in November, or slip gracefully across town to the white-shoe lobbying firm that was his ultimate destination all along, where he will no doubt be fabulously remunerated for his insights into the Capitol's ways, not to mention the ability to get his former colleagues to listen to his clients' entreaties. I can't imagine which course he'll take.