WASHINGTON – A day after losing a primary to a tea party challenger, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he would step down from his leadership post as a recurrent Republican reality set in once again throughout the party.
In addition to claiming the career of the Virginia congressman who aimed to be the next speaker of the House, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, is under attack from Heritage Action for America, a right-wing group that accuses him of favoring reauthorization of an obscure federal bank because it benefits one of his companies.
And Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a genteel six-term lawmaker who has long brought home the bacon to one of the nation’s poorest states, is in a position where he could lose a primary partly just for doing that.
The reality is that the Republican Party is now two parties – the tea party and the conservative mainstream – in constant, repeated battle for supremacy.
As a result, the late President Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment” – “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican” – is dead and gone.
For proof, just listen to what right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham said at a recent rally for David Brat, the underfunded outsider who knocked off Cantor.
Attacking President Obama for exchanging five Taliban prisoners for captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Ingraham told the crowd: “Instead of sending five Taliban MVPs over there, he could have just traded one Eric Cantor.”
Cantor’s 11-point loss to Brat, a previously obscure economics professor, sent shock waves through the capital Wednesday, even as GOP sources blamed Cantor for losing more than they credited Brat with winning.
Republican sources said Cantor was so focused on moving up in the House leadership that he spent his free time traveling the country, raising money for lawmakers who could help him. Left neglected was his sprawling congressional district, which stretches from Richmond’s suburbs to Washington’s exurbs, encompassing plenty of conservative country in between.
“Cantor lost his race because he was running for speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman,” wrote RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson.
That conventional wisdom didn’t stop tea party activists from looking at the race and saying: If we can knock off the Republican majority leader, we can knock off anybody.
“People are saying to me now, ‘I wish I had run against Chris Collins,’ ” Rus Thompson, one of Buffalo area’s leading tea party activists, said, without revealing who that possible candidate might have been.
It’s too late for that to happen this year because the primary filing deadline has passed, but Thompson said he wouldn’t be surprised if both Collins and Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, find themselves fending off challenges from the right in 2016.
That could be part of a national trend. “We may see more primaries,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, a mainstream Republican from Clarence.
In an interview, Reynolds marveled at the changes in politics since he left office in 2009.
“I looked at the Heritage Foundation as an excellent resource of conservative information,” Reynolds said. “Today it’s a political committee.”
What’s more, it’s an ultraconservative political committee that’s not shy about taking on a mainstream conservative like Collins.
After Collins authored a letter urging the House leadership to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which guarantees private-sector loans to American companies doing business overseas, Heritage went on the attack.
“Lawmaker’s company received corporate welfare from Ex-Im Bank,” read the headline on a Heritage Action blog post that accused Collins of backing the bank because a company he founded, Audubon Machinery Corp., received $8.33 million in private-sector loans guaranteed by that government bank.
“We think the Export-Import Bank is bad policy,” explained Heritage Action’s spokesman, Dan Holler. “Any time the federal government is intervening in the market and putting taxpayer money at risk, that’s bad.”
Collins stressed that his company never got a dime from the Export-Import Bank – but that Audubon and plenty of other U.S. companies could not have received private-sector loans to do business in risky overseas markets without a federal guarantee.
“I know from my personal experience that the Export-Import Bank helps create jobs,” said Collins, who called Heritage Action “a think tank that isn’t in the job-creation business.”
Collins and Holler agreed on one thing, though: the rift between the conservative congressman and the conservative political committee is a sign of the times.
“It’s a different political world,” Collins said. “The far right is looking for perfection when perfection doesn’t exist.”
Or, in Holler’s words: “If we see that anyone is on the wrong side of policy issues, we’re going to highlight that.”
That battle between the Republican mainstream and the ideological right had seemed to be cooling off earlier this year, as one tea party challenger after another fell to establishment figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Now, though, the tea party seems emboldened and recharged – claiming Brat’s victory for its own even though groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks didn’t get involved in his campaign.
“The tea party had nothing to do with this,” Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg TV on Wednesday. “They weren’t in. They didn’t put any money in.”
But tea party activists were there for Brat at the grass-roots level, booing Cantor at one of his public appearances and establishing a ground game that turned out the vote for the upstart challenger, Republican political sources said.
And they’re likely to be there, too, for primary challengers like Milton Wolf, who is trying to knock off Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, and Chris McDaniel, who pushed Cochran into a June 24 primary runoff in Mississippi.
More than any other, the Cochran-McDaniel race illustrates how low the battle between the GOP mainstream and tea party will go.
FreedomWorks, a tea party-allied political committee, is out with “Thad Cochran’s 10 worst votes,” which says, among other things: “Thad Cochran Repeatedly Voted Against Banning Congressional Earmarks” and “Thad Cochran Has Repeatedly Voted for Big Agriculture’s Corporate Welfare and Food Stamp Bill.”
On top of that, McDaniel supporters secretly photographed Cochran’s wife – who has dementia – in a nursing home and used the photo in a video that attacked the senator.
Through it all, Cochran has dismissed the tea party, saying: “All I hear about the tea party is what I’ve read in the paper.”
Yet James E. Campbell, a nationally renowned political scientist at the University at Buffalo, said it should be clear by now that the tea party can’t be taken for granted.
Amid all the internecine warfare among the two GOP factions, Campbell said: “It used to be the Democrats who were always going after each other. Now the tables have turned.”
5 take-aways from Cantor loss
1. All politics is local. Eric Cantor toured the country on a near-weekly basis, raising money for colleagues he thought could help him become House speaker and paid the price for ignoring his district.
2. All politics is transactional. He didn’t build the kind of deep, enduring relationships he needed. He is smart and strong and creates a great first impression, but his cutthroat ways wore people out over time.
3. Its has become harder to be a House member. Cantor couldn’t shower his district with federal money, a traditional way to win loyalty of constituents, because the Republican-led House banned earmarks.
4. Polls and ads don’t matter much. Two polls showed Cantor up by double-digit margins – but those polls didn’t reflect the electorate that voted in the primary. His big ads mattered less than tea party fervor.
5. People will overreact. GOP lawmakers will shy away from immigration and other tough issues. Pundits will predict a tea party wave. This is just one shocking primary in one conservative Virginia district.