CAPITOL HILL— House Majority leader Eric Cantor -- the second most powerful man in the U.S. House of Representatives -- has been unexpectedly defeated in a Republican primary election, sending shockwaves throughout the U.S. Capitol and beyond. Cantor lost to a little-known conservative opponent, David Brat, who portrayed Cantor as being too soft on the divisive issue of immigration reform.
Some were hoping Cantor would become the first Jewish American Speaker of the House. He reacted swiftly, though, to Tuesday's surprise defeat.
"Effective July 31st I will be stepping down as Majority Leader. It is with great humility that I do so," said Cantor.
His opponent, an economics professor, called his upset victory a miracle.
"All right, everybody, I want to give thanks endlessly tonight. This is the happiest moment, obviously, of my life, and I owe it to all of you in this room, number one. So give yourselves a hand," said Brat
Brat accused Cantor of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants and their children, which Cantor denied.
The Republican House leadership has rejected persistent calls by immigration rights activists and Democrats to allow a vote in the House on immigration reform.
Asked whether the issue is now dead, political analyst Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia said via Skype that any time a prominent member of Congress loses a primary, other members take notice.
“I think it will make it more difficult to find Republican votes to pass immigration reform or even bring it to the floor in fear of angering people who will vote against them in the primaries,” he said.
Other analysts agree that immigration reform was a factor, but believe that Cantor’s defeat is more emblematic of a widespread disgust among many people with the establishment in Washington.
Republican pollster Jon McHenry pointed out that a Senate race in South Carolina turned out differently.
“You see on the same day that [Eric] Cantor loses [Senator] Lindsey Graham, who has voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, wins with 56 percent of the vote,” he said.
Democrats took to the floor of the House and Senate to say Republicans should not use Cantor’s loss as an excuse not to act on immigration.
“Every time I talked to Republican members, business leaders, growers and faith leaders about immigration reform in the last several months, I consistently heard that the House leadership wanted to move forward but they did not have Cantor’s support,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat.
After this political earthquake, House Republicans likely will be busy with their own internal leadership battles in the weeks to come.