WASHINGTON — The shockwaves shook Washington beginning late Tuesday and throughout the day on Wednesday.
House Majority leader Eric Cantor, the second most powerful lawmaker in the House of Representatives, lost a primary challenge to David Brat, an underfunded challenger with grassroots backing from Tea Party activists. Cantor announced at an afternoon press conference that he would be stepping down from his leadership post as of July 31.
The defeat of a high-ranking member of Congress is rare, especially in a party primary election. The fact that it was completely unexpected has put a lot of Republicans on high alert, unwilling to do anything that might spark an angry reaction from conservative activists back home.
So what’s the big deal about the Cantor defeat? Plenty.
For starters, immigration reform may be a dead issue in this session of Congress.
Don’t like the current state of U.S. partisan politics? Too bad, because there’s more to come and it’s probably only going to get to worse.
Fascinated by the ongoing battle between mainstream Republicans and the Tea Party? Good, because there is plenty more to come, not just this election year but in the 2016 presidential year as well.
Immigration reform setback
The most immediate victim in the wake of Eric Cantor’s defeat may be the push for immigration reform in the House.
House Republican leaders had talked about doing small bits of immigration legislation as a counter to a more sweeping bill that was passed by the Senate.
But Cantor was criticized for his support for a version of the so-called Dream Act, which sets up a path to citizenship for immigrant children who were brought to the country illegally. Cantor fought back against those who saw him as too liberal on immigration reform, but it was too late.
That could have a chilling effect on any number of House Republicans who may have been toying with the idea of supporting immigration reform in smaller increments.
The national political implications of that could be enormous.
Many Republican leaders are convinced that unless they support some version of immigration reform, the growing Hispanic-American vote in the U.S. will increasingly go Democratic, making it harder for Republicans to win the presidency.
In 2012, President Barack Obama lost the white vote but he was able to patch together a winning coalition thanks to strong support from Hispanics, African-American voters and Asian-American voters, the fastest growing group of all.
As University of Virginia expert Geoffrey Skelley told VOA congressional correspondent Cindy Saine, “If immigration is seen to be part of the factor (in Cantor’s defeat)…then I think it will make it more difficult to find Republican votes to pass immigration reform or even bring it to the (House) floor out of fear of angering people who will vote against them in the primaries.”
The key word there is fear.
Nothing drives politicians like fear, and right now many Republicans are going to be most concerned with how they avoid a future primary challenge from well-funded Tea Party opponents chomping at the bit to run against anyone who is seen as too lenient on immigration.
‘Tea Party War’ heats up
In recent years, Eric Cantor has been a key bridge between mainstream Republican elements in the House and Tea Party supporters. Remember that whole government shutdown dance last October?
House leaders like Cantor and House Speaker John Boehner did not have the clout to stop Tea Party lawmakers from pushing the idea of a government shutdown. They had to wait them out and three weeks later, once public opinion turned on them, the Tea Party group was forced to capitulate.
After that showdown, the Republican Party’s mainstream old guard appeared to have the upper hand. Many Republicans had turned back Tea Party primary challengers this year. That is, until the Cantor defeat.
Defeating Cantor has re-energized the national Tea Party elements.
The irony is those groups did little to defeat Cantor. Local grassroots activists played a role and they remain the most powerful asset the Tea Party has.
The next target for the Tea Party is Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran. He has been forced into a runoff primary on June 24th against State Senator Chris McDaniel, who has become one of the Tea Party’s best hopes this year.
National Tea Party leaders are now eager to build momentum from the Cantor defeat and whip up support among activists to get out and vote against Cochran later this month.
Up until the Cantor defeat, the Republican establishment was confident they had beaten back the influence of the Tea Party this year. But the Cantor loss will likely to serve to refuel the Tea Party, both in this year’s election cycle and in the upcoming shuffle of House Republican leaders.
L. Brent Bozell III, the chairman of ForAmerica, which supports Tea Party themes, told the Associated Press, “The grassroots is in revolt and marching.”
In the short term, the Cantor defeat is likely to make Republicans less willing to compromise with Democrats and President Obama.
The cost of angering conservatives and Tea Party activists back in their home districts is just too great. That does not portend a great final two years of the Obama presidency in terms of dealing with Congress.
As for this year’s congressional midterm elections, most political analysts say Republicans are well-positioned to hold on to their majority in the House and perhaps even increase it.
The real battle this year is for control of the Senate. A shift of six Democratic seats into the Republican column would give the party control of both chambers of Congress for the next two years, making it unlikely that President Obama would be able to get much of his agenda passed.
Democrats see some potential good news down the line in the Cantor defeat.
A resurgence of the Tea Party in 2014 could heat up the civil war with the Republican establishment well into the 2016 presidential campaign cycle. That might make it harder for Republicans to eventually nominate the kind of moderate conservative who generally does well in presidential elections.
Many political analysts believe that the public will be hungry for change in 2016 after eight years of the Obama presidency. Historically speaking that should give the Republican Party a good shot at retaking the White House, provided they nominate a candidate who is acceptable to moderate and independent voters.
Republican presidential contenders will face a major challenge in 2016.
How can they convince Tea Party activists that they are true conservatives in the primaries and then pivot to present themselves as moderates in the general election against a Democrat like, for the sake of argument, Hillary Clinton?