Genuine surprises are so rare in modern elections that Tuesday’s shocking results in Virginia have left politicos grasping for explanations — and coming up with some duds. In a sharp rebuke to a senior party leader, a Tea Party-aligned challenger knocked off House majority leader Eric Cantor, a prodigious fundraiser who had seemed to be cruising to reelection. Unfortunately, though, there are signs that Republicans and Democrats alike may be jumping to the wrong conclusions about Cantor’s defeat, blaming his openness to very minor immigration reforms instead of focusing on his problems closer to home.
Within hours of the defeat Tuesday, a new conventional wisdom was taking shape: Immigration reform, always a tough sell to the House GOP, is surely now dead. If even Cantor — who compiled a strong conservative record, and signaled an openness to only the most modest of reforms — can’t escape the Tea Party’s wrath, what Republican would dare vote for reform now? Democrats, meanwhile, cheered the results and said the election shows how much the Republican Party remains captive to its most extreme wing.
Actually, the abrupt end of Cantor’s career should sound a warning to all politicians, of all parties. Even in a deeply conservative district like Cantor’s, hostility to immigration alone doesn’t cause political earthquakes like this one. Cantor spent too much time building his national profile, raising money from out-of-state-donors, and schmoozing with business lobbyists, and not enough tending to his district. Until a few weeks ago, he seemed to be taking his reelection for granted — the worst kind of political malpractice. That was a quality he shared with two Republican grandees who ran into primary trouble this year, 91-year-old Ralph Hall, who lost a Texas House primary, and 76-year-old Thad Cochran, who is in imminent danger of losing his Senate seat in Mississippi; both were viewed as simply too Washington.
Because of the tumultuous GOP infighting of the last few years, it has seemed only natural to fit each of those three elections into the Tea Party-vs.-establishment storyline. And all three challengers did draw from the Tea Party playbook. But the differences are also notable. Unlike some of the legislators the Tea Party felled in past elections, like Mike Castle in Delaware or Robert Bennett in Utah, the three victims this year were each notable for the way they simply let their guard down. Tea Party or no, each let himself become a ripe target. Other, more prepared Republican politicians easily swatted aside Tea Party challenges this year, including Senator Lindsey Graham, an immigration-reform supporter whose South Carolina electorate is as conservative as they come.
If Speaker John Boehner and the remaining House GOP leadership accept the idea that Cantor’s defeat means they must abandon immigration reform, they’ll be misdiagnosing his demise. Cantor’s defeat isn’t a warning to Republicans to avoid immigration; it’s a warning to all politicians, of all parties, that getting too cozy in office and ignoring the basic duties of a lawmaker can lead to consequences that are sudden, swift, and brutal.