House Majority Leader Eric Cantor falls to tea party challenger in Virginia primary
In a stunning upset propelled by tea-party activists, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) was defeated in Tuesday's congressional primary, with insurgent David Brat delivering an unforeseen and devastating loss to the second-most-powerful Republican in the House, who has widely been touted as a future speaker.
"I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight," Cantor said to a stunned crowd of supporters in a Richmond hotel ballroom. "It's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us."
Brat's victory gives the GOP a volatile outlook for the rest of the campaign season, with the party establishment struggling late Tuesday to grapple with the news and some conservatives relishing a surprising win.
"This is an earthquake," said former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a friend of Cantor's. "No one thought he'd lose." But Brat, tapping into conservative anger over Cantor's role in supporting efforts to reform federal immigration laws, found a way to combat Cantor's significant financial edge.
"Eric Cantor's loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment," said Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative group that targeted Cantor throughout the primary. "The grassroots is in revolt and marching."
Others had a different take. Longtime Virginia Republican strategist Chris LaCivita said Cantor's work to build the Republican majority had taken him away from his home district. "He spent days, weeks, and months traveling the country, raising money to add to the Republican majority. What can be attributed to Eric in doing so is unquestionable. Unfortunately, it had a price."
Brat, an economics professor, was not considered a major threat until Tuesday night, simply failing to show up to D.C. meetings with powerful conservative agitators last month, citing coming finals. He only had $40,000 in the bank at the end of March, according to first-quarter filings. Cantor had $2 million.
But there were early signs of trouble. Brat exposed discontent with Cantor in the solidly Republican, suburban Richmond Seventh Congressional District by attacking the lawmaker on his votes to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown, as well as his support for some immigration reforms. At a May meeting of Republican activists in the district, Cantor was booed, and an ally he campaigned for was ousted as the local party chairman in favor of a tea party favorite.
A similar revolt in the state Republican committee last year determined that the party would hold a two-day convention rather than an open primary to elect candidates in 2013. That decision helped gubernatorial contender Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative hero who lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Many establishment Republicans in the state believe Cuccinelli's nomination cost them the governorship. The Seventh District fight is a sign that the factions in the party have yet to unite.
But a GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly cautioned against viewing Cantor's loss as a win for the tea party.
"This is what happens when you don't tend the weeds in your backyard," the strategist said. He questioned Cantor's decision to go on TV - a strategy that may have raised Brat's profile and alerted more voters about the race. "Six weeks ago, Brat was an unknown. The question will be: Did the campaign overreact?"
In other primaries, Sen. Lindsey Graham won South Carolina's nomination to a third term, defeating six tea-party challengers and averting a runoff.
Graham, 58, had about 59 percent of the vote in early returns Tuesday, far more than needed to avert the runoff. His challengers argued he was not conservative enough, criticizing him for supporting U.S. immigration law overhaul.
Meanwhile, Graham's fellow Republican Sen. Tim Scott won his primary by a wide margin, setting the stage for South Carolina to elect a black person to the U.S. Senate for the first time.
Scott was appointed to the seat in 2012 after Jim DeMint stepped down, and the general election winner will serve the remainder of DeMint's term.
Voters in Colorado, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, Utah, and D.C. vote June 24. That day, Mississippi votes in the GOP runoff between Sen. Thad Cochran and tea-party challenger Chris McDaniel.
This article contains information from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press.