Since Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in Virginia’s primary elections on Tuesday night, there’s been a lot of analysis about what it means. Some have said it’s an isolated incident, caused by an entrenched incumbent who lost touch with his district and failed to take his challenger seriously. Others have credited David Brat’s victory to the resurgence of the tea party and the Republican Party’s move to the right. Still others have theorized that Virginia’s open primary system allowed Democrats to sink Cantor’s reelection by voting for his opponent. There are no clear answers, and the speculation as to why Cantor lost will undoubtedly continue for some time. However, why he lost is only half the story. How his loss will affect Congress’s ability to enact major policy reforms is equally interesting – and troubling.
During the campaign Brat criticized Cantor for his efforts on immigration reform, and for his position on fiscal issues such as his votes to raise the debt ceiling. He also hit Cantor for not fighting hard enough to stop the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s massive health reform law. Cantor’s opposition to that law has always been pretty clear, but immigration reform and legislation to increase the debt ceiling are initiatives that required both parties to move toward the middle.
It's not that Cantor's a great one for compromise himself. But no matter what the actual reason for Cantor’s loss was, incumbents vulnerable to primary challenges from the more extreme sides of their parties are likely to view his defeat as a cautionary tale and shy away from major policy initiatives that might require compromises that could be used against them. Congress' ability to do anything just got harder. "It is easy as a Democrat to smile,” former Obama strategist David Axelrod told Politico this week. “But to the degree that this gives the anti-everything crowd a lift, and dooms solutions to problems like immigration reform, it is a loss for the country.”
Not much gets done in an election year anyway, but serious reform talks were squeaking along on issues such as tax reform and immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform has already been declared dead for the year – it was the next biggest headline on Wednesday morning. This election may also have serious implications for the next time Congress has to raise the debt ceiling, and it could have an effect on any serious attempts to improve the Affordable Care Act instead of simply repealing it.
Congress hasn’t worked that well in the past few years. Look no further than last October’s Federal government shutdown for proof of that. But the conventional wisdom was that lawmakers had learned from that debacle and were slowly pursuing a return to regular order that would allow them to take action on some policy matters that were long overdue. Cantor’s defeat has made the task more challenging.