Cantor's Loss Throws Wrench in Immigration Reform

Powerful House leader's loss epitomizes how the tea party can get its groove back.

Dave Brat, right, is congratulated by Johnny Wetlaufer after Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary on Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Richmond, Va.

Dave Brat, right, is congratulated by Johnny Wetlaufer Tuesday in Richmond, Va., after Brat defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary.

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., just gave the tea party a new lease on life.

In a crushing blow, Cantor lost the Republican Party’s nomination Tuesday in his Richmond district to economics professor David Brat, effectively reversing the narrative that the tea party is no longer a force to be feared.

Cantor’s loss had Washington blindsided.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers his concession speech with his wife Diana Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Richmond, Va., Cantor lost in the GOP primary to tea party candidate Dave Brat.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivers his concession speech Tuesday. 

An internal poll just last week showed Cantor up by more than 30 points. And two years ago, Cantor won his primary race with nearly 80 percent of the vote. It seemed improbable for an unknown candidate like Brat to swing in and oust a political angler who was often thought of as the next Speaker of the House.

[ROFF: Eric Cantor's Loss Portends Chaos]

“Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement released after the race. “He’s a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing.”

On paper, Cantor had his bases covered. He had gobs of money and had outspent Brat more than 20 to 1.

Cantor’s defeat was so unexpected it even caught the tea party by surprise. According to The Wall Street Journal, conservative leaders who had gathered together at a dinner to discuss a slew of other upcoming races, were shocked when they turned on the news and saw the returns coming in.

Unlike other high-profile congressional contests where establishment candidates face serious tea party threats, national groups like the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks had sat out the race. Brat’s major support came from the endorsements of conservative commentators Mark Levin and Ann Coulter.

Yet, Brat found grass-roots success. He painted Cantor as the very face of insider incumbency. He accused Cantor of going easy on Obamacare and supporting amnesty for immigrants who entered the country illegally – a stance Cantor tried hard to counter in the final weeks of the campaign.  

[ALSO: The Fight to Define Cantor's Defeat]

The results even give some low-profile tea party candidates like Joe Carr, who is challenging Sen. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, hope that anything can still happen in 2014.

“What we have seen tonight in Virginia shows that no race should be taken for granted and all the money and position in the world doesn’t resonate with an electorate that is fed up with a Washington establishment that has abandoned conservative principles,” Carr said in a statement. “From Virginia to Mississippi, a transformational change is underway that is being led by a true grass-roots movement.”

Cantor’s defeat, however, may go even deeper. It indicates how detached the majority leader had become from his district. Instead of spending the entire Election Day in the Richmond suburbs campaigning, for example, Cantor started his morning off at the Republican Party’s press availability on Capitol Hill.

Supporters of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., watch as he delivers a concession speech at a primary-night gathering Tuesday, June 10, 2014, in Richmond, Va. Cantor lost in the GOP primary to tea party candidate Dave Brat.
Dejected Cantor supporters listen to his concession speech Tuesday in Richmond, Va.

“GOP leadership just isn’t that popular – and, in general, I think it’s been getting more common for party leaders in general to struggle. Tom Daschle lost in 2004, Harry Reid had a close call in 2010, Mitch McConnell is in a tough race this year,” says Kyle Kondik, a congressional politics expert based at the University of Virginia. “Politicos like to talk about inside baseball stuff like seniority and pork, but I’m not sure voters care.”

Cantor’s defeat could also have a debilitating effect on the House’s ability to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. His loss will certainly make hesitant GOP congressmen more gun shy than they already were to tackle the controversial topic. While Cantor hadn’t taken a stance on where he stood on a path to legalization for the 11 million immigrants living in the shadows, he had come out in support of a bill that would to allow the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.

“Eric Cantor saying he opposes amnesty is like Barack Obama saying he opposes Obamacare,” Brat said last month.

Cantor fought the accusations by sending out a mailer to constituents that applauded Cantor’s role in blocking the Senate’s “amnesty” bill for “illegal aliens.”