In a stunning turn of events that Republicans tempted toward compromise will remember for a generation, a tea party challenger defeated one of the top Republican leaders in Congress, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in the Tuesday Republican primary for Cantor’s Virginia congressional seat.
David Brat rode anger over immigration in particular, and an anti-establishment wave in general, to beat Cantor, who has held his seat for more than a decade and is the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives.
Brat, a virtual unknown, campaigned hard on immigration, dubbing Cantor “the number one Republican supporter of amnesty.” Brat benefited from conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s steady support and a drumbeat from online conservatives led by the Breitbart and the Drudge Report.
Cantor, like many establishment Republican figures, has at times cautiously supported some version of the negotiated compromise on immigration — legalization in exchange for tighter border measures — that a key Republican constituency, big business, eagerly backs, and which has for years been widely considered inevitable. Brat ran hard against every element of that, including the broadly popular move to legalize DREAMers — immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
“Once you announced that kids are welcome, they’re going to head in,” Brat said Sunday.
Cantor had tacked against the immigration compromise as his primary approached, and the election drew far less national attention than more high-profile tea party challenges in Kentucky and Mississippi. Cantor’s internal polling reportedly had him leading the race by 34 points — last week.
Every Republican who wants to keep his or her seat — and perhaps particularly the ones who hope to win Republican presidential primaries in 2016 — will likely study the results of Tuesday’s election. They raise questions about whether figures who support a version of the immigration compromise, like Florida’s Marco Rubio, will be viable candidates; they suggest that hardline anti-immigration campaigners like Texas’ Ted Cruz may be seriously viable primary candidates; and they open the question of what strategy Republicans can take to win vital Hispanic voters against a Democrat in the general election.