In a stunning upset last night, Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his bid for reelection in a primary against a relatively unknown economics professor from Randolph-Macon College David Brat. The final vote count had Cantor losing by the wide margin of 55 percent to 45 percent, the first time a House majority leader has lost reelection since 1899, and an embarrassment to both Cantor and the GOP establishment. The race to fill his leadership seat will occur on June 19.
At his press conference today Cantor stated, “I can’t be more optimistic about the future of this country. It has been more than an honor to serve, and we thank our staffs who are the backbone of our institution.” “People say that things don’t get done, but a stack of bills waiting in the Senate tell us that conservatives do work,” he said. He continued, “While I will not be on the ballot in November I will continue to champion the causes of liberty and freedom.” Cantor announced that effective July 31, he will “step down as majority leader with great humility.” He refused to speculate as to why he lost.
So what happened? Many have speculated that immigration was the issue that toppled Cantor. As the Washington Post pointed out this morning, immigration did have a role. The article cites North Carolina Congresswoman Renee Ellmers’ fight with conservative pundit Laura Ingraham over immigration, and how Ellmers’ Republican primary opponent, the loudly anti-amnesty Frank Roche, ended up winning an impressive 41 percent. However, in that race there were several other issues in play. Many local politicos disliked Ellmers for her seemingly insider actions and votes since she went to Washington.
Likewise, while immigration was an important wedge issue in the campaign against Cantor, a bigger culprit was more than likely his deep unpopularity among his constituents. In the Federalist this morning, a writer from Cantor’s district wrote:
The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home. His constituency was the Republican leadership and the Republican establishment. That’s who he really answered to. Guess what? Folks in the seventh district figured that out.
He goes on to tell a story of an interaction he had with Cantor, where Cantor began bragging about an earmark:
Then he hastily added: “But we don’t do that anymore.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Eric Cantor: the soul of an establishment machine politician, with the “messaging” of the small-government conservatives grafted uneasily on top of it.
So, what does this mean for the GOP and leadership via immigration reform? The answer is: no one knows. Bloggers who have identified the primary loss as one of the proverbial nails in the coffin for immigration reform might want to read last night’s piece by Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor of National Review. In his article in Bloomberg View he writes:
But then why did Senator Lindsey Graham, who vocally championed the immigration bill while Cantor distanced himself from it, win walking away in conservative South Carolina? Why did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is just as much an establishment figure as Cantor, and more favorable to the immigration bill, thump his primary opponent a few weeks ago?
One of the biggest supporters of immigration reform lost last night, but many of its most important allies remain. What does the future hold for reform? Again Ponnuru says it best:
I don’t have a satisfactory answer yet, but I’m not going to trust anyone who makes a confident pronouncement about what this election means unless he saw this result coming.
As Ace of Spades put it so eloquently, as far as we know Cantor lost:
Because David Brat received more votes.