A One-Party Bellwether

Eric Cantor's margin of victory Tuesday could have national GOP repercussions.

The Associated Press

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. is favored to beat his primary challenger on Tuesday.

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There’s a lot more at stake in Tuesday’s congressional primaries than most people are letting on. In fact the future direction of the U.S. House of Representatives may be decided by what voters in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District decide to do.

The question isn’t whether House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will win renomination but by how much. A poll commissioned and released at the end of last week by The Daily Caller, a D.C.-based news website, shows Cantor at just over 50 percent support against Randolph-Macon College Professor David Brat, an underfunded political unknown backed by the tea party who has campaigned on the theme that Cantor is simply too liberal to be a national Republican leader.

Much of what Brat is alleging comes out of a steady stream of news reports, in the conservative press as well as the mainstream media, that Cantor has some kind of plan in mind to force the House to vote on an immigration bill that includes the hated “amnesty” provision once the primary is over.

[GALLERY: Cartoons on the tea party]

Sources close to the majority leader deny this – and there are more than a few conservatives who regard anything less than “round them up and send them home” as a de facto amnesty – but the rumors won’t go away. They appear to be driven by so-called grassroots activists who oppose immigration reform and are trying to push GOP lawmakers into the calculation that support for reform is a political risky proposition; but it is not altogether certain that people who might want to take Cantor’s place as GOP leader – and heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner – aren’t also adding fuel to the fire. Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Henserling, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee and former head of the House Republican Conference, is being coy about his intentions but longtime observers of the GOP in the House believe he is maneuvering himself into a position where he can challenge Cantor for the chamber’s No. 2 post – based in part on the presumption that Boehner is willing to stick around for another two years.

Here the speaker himself is being coy. He won’t say he’s leaving but he also doesn’t seem ready to commit to serving another two years in Congress. A lot depends on the outcome of the upcoming elections: If the GOP takes control of the Senate then Boehner is almost certain to stay on for the last two years of the Obama administration should the conference be willing to have him – and there is absolutely zero sign that there will be any effort to topple him as occurred when unhappy tea party-aligned members of the House (who are either now leaving the House or have already left) tried to take the gavel away from him. At the outset it appeared there were enough members opposed to Boehner’s re-election to make trouble but, as they utterly lacked organizational skills, the whole business fell apart when the rubber actually hit the road. This, say those who watch conference for a living, is a testament to Boehner’s authority and control over the conference and the fact that the rank and file like having him in the top spot more than many of them might be willing to admit.

If Cantor loses his primary, or posts a victory narrow enough to make him appear vulnerable to ambitious people who see themselves in the majority leader’s slot, it will almost certainly have a bearing on what Boehner decides to do – even if, as the scuttlebutt has it, there’s a seven-figure job as head of a major D.C. trade association waiting for him to say “yes” to. Most people forget that the current leadership was assembled at a time of crisis – the GOP had lost the majority and was suffering the taint of an ethical scandal resulting from the political machinations of by former Majority Leader Tom DeLay. It was not a cohesive team that developed over time, with each member having risen through the ranks of the party leadership after having proven him or herself. Indeed Boehner was the lone adult to whom the GOP could turn – having himself been purged from the post-Contract with America leadership as the result of DeLay’s efforts to isolate and eventually replace Newt Gingrich as the chamber’s dominant Republican. All that, as they say, is ancient history – except in the way it highlights the importance of alliances among members and how, in many cases, they are misinterpreted or misunderstood by those who watch Congress but are not actually members of it.

[SEE: Cartoons on Immigration]

Layered onto all of this is the fact that whoever wins the 7th Congressional District primary will represent it in Congress for the next term. There is no Democrat filed to run in the general election meaning that, one way or another, the Republicans keep the seat. What many people overlook however is that Virginia is not a party registration state – Democrats can vote in Republican primaries and vice versa.

In most cases this doesn’t matter but this time, in this one race it could make a difference – especially if Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a former national Democratic Party chairman, had a reason to want to mess around. Well, as of Sunday, he does – the Republicans in the state legislature found a way to persuade a Democrat sitting in a Republican-leaning seat to resign, turning a 20-20 tie into a 20-19 GOP majority in the short term and a likely 21-19 majority for the balance of McAuliffe’s years in office.

There are lots of folks around the state capitol Monday calling this latest maneuver – which renders McAuliffe’s plan to expand Medicaid in the state deader than the dead it already was – a “dirty trick.” And, like most of the people who were part of the Clinton’s inner political cadre, he’d rather get even than get mad. What better way than to throw the entire Republican Party in the House into a state of chaos by turning out enough Virginia Democrats to vote in the GOP primary to oust Cantor?

All this of course is speculation and a compilation of various fables and fairy tales floating around on a sleepy, humid Washington Monday. And yet, like all great rumors there’s more than a kernel of truth to most of it. So if you want to know what’s going to happen to the GOP over the next two years – and possibly for much longer – watch Virginia on Tuesday.