Shock Defeat for Cantor Leaves Republicans with a Problem

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Yuri Gripas/Reuters

In the most shocking political upset in recent years, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, lost his primary to a Tea Party challenger Tuesday night.

Everyone from political consultants to pollsters to Cantor's own colleagues believed the second-ranking House Republican would best challenger Dave Brat in the primary. His surprise loss sent Twitter into a frenzy while reporters rushed to rewrite their pre-written stories about how Cantor would win.

Four years into the era of the Tea Party, Washington takes its primary challengers seriously, but somehow no one saw this one coming. Cantor was expected to become be House Speaker one day. Instead, he lost 44.5 percent to 55.5 percent.

The shock of Cantor's loss won't just wear off as the news cycle dashes off to the next big story. Cantor was a major player in Republican politics, and his party will struggle to determine what his loss means and how to fill his place in the House leadership next year. As a GOP operative told NBC reporter Luke Russert Tuesday night, "it's like waking up and suddenly the Washington Monument is missing."

Does Cantor's loss embolden the Tea Party members to overthrow Speaker John Boehner? Does the GOP race to the right on immigration, dashing any lingering chance of reform for the next several years?

Before the vote totals were fully counted, Washington began to speculate about whether Cantor's loss would be a death blow to immigration reform—the major policy difference between so-called establishment Republicans and the Tea Party. Cantor's loss will likely strike fear into the hearts of Republicans who contemplated moving forward on immigration reform because it affirms the GOP base is unflaggingly set against it. Cantor opposed the comprehensive reform bill passed by the Senate a year ago, but helped craft the Kids Act, a Republican version of the DREAM Act to give young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and has voiced support for other House immigration bills.

Brat had attacked Cantor mercilessly on the issue of immigration. "The central policy issue in this race has become Cantor's absolute determination to pass an amnesty bill," Brat wrote in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed last week. "Cantor is the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty."

But support for immigration reform isn't necessarily a death knell for Republicans. A couple hundred miles south of Cantor's district, in South Carolina, incumbent Senator Lindsey Graham sailed past six Tea Party challengers to win the GOP nomination Tuesday night, despite Graham's full-throated support for comprehensive immigration reform. Not only did Graham support the Senate bill last year, he helped write it.

Pro-immigration reform voices are trying to use Graham's win to contradict the emerging narrative that Cantor's loss should scare the GOP away from reform. "Simplistic to chalk Cantor's loss to immigration. Gang of 8 member Lindsey Graham's winning. Why? He stood by convictions & showed courage," pro-reform GOP strategist Ana Navarro tweeted Tuesday night.

"Tonight's election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration," Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement. "The Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat. Cantor's defeat does not change the fundamental fact that Republicans will become a minority party if they don't address our broken immigration system."

As the GOP struggles between its Tea Party and establishment factions in the weeks and months ahead, it's a battle Cantor himself is very familiar with. After the GOP's big losses in the 2012 election, Cantor had generally worked alongside Boehner (R-Ohio) to keep the Tea Party members in line. Together they tried (and failed) to avert a government shutdown, Cantor then voted to end the shutdown and raise the debt limit. Cantor has also tried to boost his party's image and became closely associated with the so-called "Republican reform" movement, which wanted to bring new policy ideas to the GOP with a particular focus on helping Americans struggling financially.

But Cantor wasn't always a force for dealmaking. In 2011, Cantor played a major role in scuttling the failed "grand bargain" that would have saved America from years of debt-ceiling brinkmanship, budget crises and the cruel and arbitrary budget cuts in sequestration. Cantor so much as admitted that he helped kill the deal, which Boehner supported, in an interview with the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. "Cantor, more than any other politician, helped create the series of fiscal crises that have gripped Washington since Election Day," Lizza wrote in his 2013 profile of Cantor.

Whether Cantor was egging on the Tea Party in 2011 or trying to rebrand his party in 2013, no one saw him as a liberal Republican likely to succomb to a Tea Party challenge. But apparently he failed to be the firebrand the base in his district wanted.

There were signs that Cantor was in trouble, and he knew it. The Washington press began to wise up to this after the Republican convention for Cantor's home district, Virginia's 7th Congressional District, on May 10. At the convention, Brat, a college economics professor, received loud applause from his supporters for a speech largely attacking Cantor; when Cantor took the stage, the crowd booed. Later that day, Cantor's hand-picked choice to chair the district's GOP narrowly lost to Brat's preferred chairman. Cantor is arguably the most powerful Republican in Virginia politics, but had lost control of the GOP in his own district.

Unlike some Republicans who lost to Tea Party challengers because they were unprepared, Cantor took his challenge seriously. He spent $5 million on the race, while his opponent spent around $100,000. He flooded his district with direct mailers intended to prove his ultra-conservative bona fides. "Conservative Republican Eric Cantor is stopping the Obama Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty," one read, adopting the far right's rhetoric on immigration. Another, which showed a picture of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said Cantor was "fighting for the truth about Benghazi." A third said he was "standing up to the IRS."

Heading into election night, Cantor's team appeared confident they had done enough to defeat Brat. An internal poll showed him beating Brat by 34 points, though an outside poll showed Cantor up by only nine points. As Cantor put it in a brief concession speech Tuesday night, "Obviously we came up short."

Democrats are selling the idea that the Tea Party has taken over the GOP, a position that is certainly debatable but one that helps Democrats raise money. "The Tea Party isn't just alive and well—it's taken wholesale control of the GOP," a Democratic National Committee email blast to supporters declared Tuesday night, before asking for $10 donations to "help Democrats fight the Tea Party."

"Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans' extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight is a major victory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said in a statement. "As far as the midterms elections are concerned, it's a whole new ballgame."

It may be a whole different ballgame, but Cantor can stay in the game a little longer if he chooses. Virginia law prohibits Cantor from running for his seat as an independent, but he could potentially run as a write-in candidate. Though Cantor hasn't indicated whether he will attempt this feat or not, it has worked before. And if Tuesday night taught us one thing, it's that anything is possible.