Virginia House|By David Wasserman, June 10, 2014
In one of the biggest House primary earthquakes of all time, GOP House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor lost renomination tonight to Randolph Macon College economics professor Dave Brat, 55 percent to 45 percent. Private polling taken in the last several weeks showed Cantor well ahead, but the race obviously closed quickly in the final stages.
Cantor's leadership position, unwillingness to prolong last October's government shutdown, far-fetched attacks on Brat, and stylistic clash with Virginia's gun-owning, very conservative 7th CD all played a role in the "perfect storm" of base anger that engulfed him. These were problems all of Cantor's money and more couldn't really solve.
Brat's win also speaks to the GOP primary electorate's distrust for the Republican leadership's flirtations with immigration reform. If an immigration bill wasn't already dead in the House, it is now.
According to Virginia's sore loser election provision, Cantor cannot run as an independent in the November general election. The provision is somewhat ambiguous as to whether Cantor could mount a write-in bid. However, the presence of three other candidates on the ballot, including Democratic Randolph Macon professor Jack Trammell, one Libertarian, and one Independent Green, would complicate such an effort.
Virginia's 7th CD is very heavily Republican: GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won it 57 percent to 42 percent in 2012. So even Brat, who attacked Cantor from the right on immigration and debt ceiling politics, doesn't change our Solid Republican rating here. If Cantor were unable or unwilling to write a long-shot write-in campaign, a fierce fight for his House GOP leadership slot could ensue immediately.
The result proves that an under-the-radar sneak attack can be much more potent than telegraphed primary challenges of the sort GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell or Rep. Mike Simpson received. Even so, it can't be said that Cantor was caught napping. Cantor spent heavily on TV and mailers attacking Brat, but his loss simply speaks to Cantor's inability to match the mood of the GOP base.
Last week, GOP talk radio personality Laura Ingraham appeared at a 500-person rally against Cantor. According to Breitbart, Ingraham sent activists roaring by declaring "I kind of wish that President Obama would have thought this through a little bit more. Instead of sending five Taliban MVPs over there, he could have just traded one Eric Cantor."
But Cantor simply wasn't capable of matching that sentiment. Cantor pulled no punches, attacking Brat as a "liberal college professor" who served as an "economic adviser" to Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, but news outlets and fact-checkers called that attack largely false, since Brat had never advised Kaine directly while serving on the governor's economic council. The attack backfired.
The button-down Cantor was also never a perfect fit for the 7th CD. Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, ran strongest tonight in his white-collar home base of Henrico County and the city of Richmond, but the 7th CD is full of much more evangelical Tea Party oriented areas like Hanover County where Cantor underperformed even in his 2012 primary.
Brat's campaign, backed by just less than $100,000 against Cantor's $2 million, thrived on grassroots and word-of-mouth in a low-turnout primary. This is a loss that can't be blamed on Democrats "crossing over" to vote in Virginia's open primary: Brat received his largest margins in VA-07's most conservative territory, including Hanover County (68 percent) and New Kent County (62 percent).
It will take days and even weeks to fully gauge the implications and fallout from Cantor's loss, but it's unlikely Brat's formula could be replicated against other Republicans who aren't members of leadership. Cantor becomes just the second House Republican to lose a primary, and most states' primaries have already passed. Stay tuned.