House majority leader Eric Cantor
Washington, June 11: In one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history, the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was soundly defeated yesterday by a Tea Party-backed economics professor who had hammered him for being insufficiently conservative.
The result delivered a major jolt to the Republican Party — Cantor had widely been considered the top candidate to succeed Speaker John A. Boehner — and it has the potential to change both the debate in Washington on immigration and, possibly, the mid-term elections.
With just over $200,000, David Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, toppled Cantor, repeatedly criticising him for being soft on immigration and contending that he supported what critics call amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally.
During a short concession speech late yesterday, Cantor did not try to analyse his defeat or cast blame, saying only that he knew he had disappointed his supporters.
In victory, Brat said that his candidacy had resonated with voters who believed that politics had been dumbed down by partisan infighting.
“The American people want to pay attention to serious ideas again,” Brat said, speaking on Fox News. “Our founding was built by people who were political philosophers, and we need to get back to that, away from this kind of cheap political rhetoric of Right and Left.” He will face Jack Trammell, a Democrat who is also a professor at Randolph-Macon, this autumn in the heavily Republican district.
Republicans were so sure that Cantor would win that most party leaders had been watching for how broad his victory would be. His defeat will reverberate in the capital and could have major implications for any chance of an immigration overhaul.
Cantor, 51, who is in his seventh term, had sought to counter Brat’s accusations that he was too willing to compromise on immigration. The majority leader, who had raised $5.4 million for the campaign, blanketed Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District with fliers and television advertisements in which he emphasised that he opposed an “amnesty” policy.
But with significant help from conservative talk radio hosts like Laura Ingraham, Brat was able to galvanise opposition to Cantor in one of Virginia’s most conservative congressional districts.
Ingraham, one of the few high-profile conservatives to put her muscle behind Brat, said on Fox News last night that the primary results were “an absolute repudiation of establishment politics” and that Republican leaders should take note.
“He really just didn’t have very much money, but what he did have was a lot of heart,” she said of Brat.
“I think there will be a lot of people out there saying this could be the beginning of something really big for the Republican Party.”
Cantor’s loss recalled the defeat of former Speaker Thomas S. Foley, a Democrat who lost to a little-known Republican, George Nethercutt, in the 1994 general elections that delivered control of Congress to the Republicans. It is much rarer for a member of the congressional leadership to lose a primary.