WASHINGTON — A little more than a year ago, House majority leader Eric Cantor arrived on the campus of Harvard University and declared that he, like his party, had been doing some “soul searching.”
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Cantor said, the Republican Party “needs to do a better job at getting to know different constituencies.”
He thought he had learned the lesson — but his constituents believed otherwise.
Now, in the wake of Cantor’s stunning primary defeat Tuesday at the hands of a Tea Party insurgent, the Republican Party is once again in the throes of soul searching, and the urgency may be even greater. Cantor announced Wednesday that he will step down from his leadership post at the end of July, throwing the party’s leadership and direction into disarray.
Some observers believe that Cantor’s defeat — one of the biggest primary upsets in congressional history — could diminish any hopes the establishment wing of the Republican Party had of quelling the Tea Party movement’s fervor, doom plans for immigration reform, and upend planning for this year’s congressional midterm elections and the 2016 presidential race.
Given the failure of pundits to foresee Cantor’s defeat, such predictions may be fleeting. But if there’s one certainty from the 63,008 ballots cast in a congressional district based in Richmond, Va., it’s that nothing is certain until the voters have spoken.
Still, it seemed clear Wednesday that the Tea Party has been reinvigorated, prompting Republican candidates to recalibrate their appeals to the most conservative elements of the party, even if polling and other evidence suggests Cantor’s loss had more to do with how badly he ran his campaign than with his failure to embrace Tea Party positions on immigration and other issues.
“The narrative of the ‘Return of the Jedi,’ with the establishment flexing its muscle on any dissident group out there, is probably wrong,” said Tom Rath, a veteran Republican consultant in New Hampshire. “Republicans are not going to be able to duck this in November. This is going to be used a lot by Democrats to say that, ‘See, they’re not back in the middle; they’re on the fringe.’ It’s going to hurt.”
Indeed, after Romney’s 2012 campaign, the Republican Party spent months analyzing why he had lost.
The party concluded that it needed to adopt more inclusive rhetoric, engage with minority voters, and embrace comprehensive immigration reform.
Party leaders, as if following marching orders, set up political committees designed to boost establishment candidates and doom the Tea Party.
That strategy had been largely successful during the midterm elections so far, with the establishment securing most of its desired candidates. Two top Republicans — House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell — both beat back Tea Party challengers. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, easily won his primary on Tuesday night.
Cantor, in a move foreshadowed by his March 2013 appearance at the Kennedy School of Government, confidently ran on the party playbook, and it may have cost him the election.
His opponent, 49-year-old college professor David Brat, ran a campaign largely focused on immigration, casting Cantor as too lenient on illegal immigrants.
Brat won, 56 percent to 44 percent.
It was lost on no one that just a week ago people were writing off the Tea Party. And the Tea Party itself wrote off Brat, who got few major endorsements outside of conservative commentators Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. Brat won despite a significant fund-raising disparity — Cantor spent as much on steakhouse meals as Brat did on his entire campaign — and the challenger claimed some divine intervention.
“God acted through people on my behalf,” Brat told Fox News on Tuesday night. “It’s an unbelievable miracle.”
Cantor, in a Wednesday news conference, batted away several questions about what larger meaning he thinks the GOP should take from his loss, saying that was for political analysts.
“I know that my team worked incredibly, incredibly hard,” he said. “In the end, the voters chose a different candidate.”
Now the question is whether Republicans will run to the right and, if so, whether they will go too far and hand seats — and possibly the next presidential election — to the Democrats.
Romney, who in 2012 often kept his distance from the Tea Party, signaled concerns about the message that could be taken from Cantor’s defeat.
“The outcome of the primary proves once again people are concerned with the state of our immigration policy and that action must be taken to correct it soon,” he said in a statement.
Even though Cantor has been seen as a chief obstacle to passing immigration reform, Brat was able to cast him as too moderate on the issue. Brat also criticized a budget deal negotiated by Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee.
On those messages, Brat trounced the House’s second-ranking Republican, a man who was next in line to be speaker of the House — and the first Jewish one at that.
With Republicans considering a move to the right to win primaries, Democrats are salivating.
“As far as the midterms elections are concerned, it’s a whole new ballgame,” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.
Some Republicans said the lessons to be drawn from Cantor’s loss should not be far-reaching. With reports that Cantor’s internal polls had him with a comfortable lead, they said, he was not well served by his staff. And Cantor spent part of Election Day not in his district, where voters were heading to the polls, but in Washington.
“If 4,000 votes had changed, Cantor would have won,” said Stuart Stevens, a top Republican strategist. “There’s 317 million people in the country, give or take. . . . I would hesitate to make much out of it except Cantor didn’t do a very good job getting out his vote.”
The Cantor loss could also change the thinking about the US Senate race in New Hampshire, where Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, is facing a primary challenge from former New Hampshire senator Bob Smith, a more conservative candidate.
“Someone like former senator Smith, who’s running against Scott Brown, may feel a sense of his people are still out there and willing to vote,” Rath said. “If the more motivated voter is the one who is more ideologically committed than pragmatically committed, that could surprise people.”
Jim Rubens, one of the Republican candidates hoping to defeat Brown, said he hoped to emulate Brat’s victory.
“Eric Cantor’s defeat is an air raid siren loud enough to be heard even through the Washington establishment’s tin ear,” he said. “Voters are fed up to their eye teeth with career politicians busy feathering their own nests and who have forgotten about their constituents. Their river of campaign money will not defeat the candidate who has built the grassroots support.”