It’s tea party time in Virginia. The question is, does the defeat of Eric Cantor signify something larger for the country and for the Republican Party or is it a reflection of something more parochial?
Cantor is the No. 2 man in the Republican House and his stunning defeat in Tuesday’s primary has sent shock waves through the party. Indeed, under immediate pressure from tea partyers, Cantor announced Wednesday that he would step down from his leadership position by late July.
Cantor’s drubbing – he lost with 44.5 percent of the vote to 55.5 percent for the little-known David Brat – is made even more painful for the fact that Brat, a college professor, ran a $200,000 campaign compared to the $5.4 million Cantor had on hand.
With the focused assistance of friendly talk radio personalities, Brat pummeled Cantor over the issue of immigration, saying the incumbent favored amnesty for illegal aliens. Many observers think that played a large role in his defeat. But there are other possibilities.
As former Rep. John LaFalce, a Democrat from Erie County, observed Wednesday on Facebook, personality could also have played a role. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., easily defeated tea party challengers in a six-way race on Tuesday, LaFalce noted, winning 59 percent of the vote even though he helped broker the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” deal on immigration reform. On that issue, LaFalce observed, Graham’s position was little different from Cantor’s and perhaps even more liberal.
The difference, LaFalce suggested, could be that Graham is “extremely likable, the most important quality for any candidate to have. Enuf said.”
Cantor carried other baggage, too. He ran a poor campaign, according to many observers, and generally spent too little time attending to constituent and local issues in his district. He was viewed as a likely successor to Speaker John Boehner, and may have been seeking to build a larger base of support. For example, Cantor spoke at Daemen College just three months ago. That’s a long way from Richmond.
Still, the tea party – the loose affiliation of far-right conservatives that shut down the government last year – is plainly not dead. While Graham mopped the floor with them on Tuesday, in Mississippi, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran was forced into a runoff election June 24 by last week’s primary.
That race is about as nasty as they come, with Cochran this week calling Chris McDaniel an “extremist” (which he plainly is) who would damage the state.
McDaniel has said he would reject federal disaster assistance for Mississippi, which is subject to massive destruction from Gulf Coast hurricanes. Cochran is able to bring money back to Mississippi, among the country’s poorest states.
Establishment Republicans worry that if McDaniel wins the runoff, he could have the same impact on Republicans in other states that Todd Akin of Missouri – the candidate of “legitimate rape” – had two years ago.
There is a bigger risk to Republicans, too. Tea partyers are far to the right of the country’s centrist voters, whom presidential candidates need in order to win. Brat’s victory may have doomed the chances for immigration reform, which much of the nation would like to see.
If the party moves even further to the right than it was in 2012 – when President Obama won an electoral landslide – its prospects for 2016 and beyond would dim significantly.
That will make the five months until Election Day an interesting and potentially predictive time. Democrats and Republicans both should be worried.