Eric Cantor Loses Primary: What It Means For The GOP, The Tea Party and Immigration Reform

In one of the most stunning political upsets in congressional history, Eric Cantor lost his primary election on Monday to an underfunded political novice named David Brat. Despite Cantor’s internal polling, which showed him leading by 34 points, he lost by double-digits on Tuesday night, and in doing so, left just about everyone speechless. It’s hard to overstate how unforeseen this was; to get a rough idea, have a look at what the Washington Post wrote about the race earlier in the day:

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.

In defeating the Majority Leader — a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the position was created in 1899 — Brat accomplished two things: He ended the career of one of the most powerful people in Washington, a man whose future as the next Speaker of the House was almost a foregone conclusion; and he breathed new life into the Tea Party, obliterating the growing narrative that establishment Republicans had successfully beaten back the rightward pull they’ve faced from conservatives over the past four years.

As Majority Leader, Cantor was second-in-command in the House of Representatives. But he was more than that. In addition to holding enormous sway with Tea Partiers in the House — he single-handedly convinced them to reject a debt ceiling deal with President Obama in 2011 — Cantor was seen as an ideas man in the party — a “thinker,” if you will. He’d positioned himself as a leader among young House Republicans, and seemed to hold more influence with conservative House members than Boehner himself. He was also the presumed successor to Boehner as Speaker, and was even in the running to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008.

With Cantor gone, there will be a serious void in Republican leadership, in both a formal and de facto sense.

"Given the speculation Boehner himself may decide not to run again for speaker, the idea had been out there that Cantor would simply walk into the speakership," a GOP aide told National Journal. “But now, who the hell would be the next speaker?” The aide added that Cantor’s loss caused “chaos for the leadership ranks.”

Brat’s victory also made it clear that the Tea Party is still a potent force in American politics, and a serious threat to any and every elected Republican. After the GOP gave up control of the Senate twice in a row by nominating unelectable Tea Party candidates, Karl Rove and other powerful Republicans poured gobs of money and resources into ensuring that that it wouldn’t happen again. For a while, it looked like it was working, as Tea Party candidates lost a series of primaries across the country. The New York Times op-ed pages declared the Tea Party dead.

But then, in Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary, one of them won — or at least, got close enough to force a run-off. And now, a Tea Party challenger with almost no money — Cantor outspent Brat by around 25:1 — has ousted the second-most-powerful Republican in Washington. This will almost certainly embolden future Tea Party candidates to run against elected Republicans; more importantly, it will force Rove and his ilk to keep spending money on Republican primaries, both now and in 2016. That’s money that could be spent on other races, and so, in a sense, Cantor's loss has helped just about every Democrat running for office over the next two years.

One more note: Some people will point to this as the death knell for immigration reform in the House, but in reality, immigration reform was most likely dead on arrival in the House anyway and its prospects in the lower chamber were supremely overstated to begin with.

"House GOPers weren't seriously contemplating compromise before Cantor's loss and they're not contemplating it after his loss," Ezra Klein wrote. "In terms of legislative achievements, Obama's second term has been done for some time."

In other words, the chance of reform passing the House probably just went from around one percent to zero percent. But make no mistake: Immigration reform notwithstanding, Cantor’s loss is huge, and will substantially affect everything that happens in Congress over the next two years and beyond.