When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race to an anonymous, Tea Party-backed economics professor on June 10, it sent a shockwave through Washington and cemented the idea that the Tea Party is poised to take over Republican politics. Terror-stricken Republican incumbents who thought they had gained control of the party suddenly doubted their strength: If someone as powerful and seemingly secure in his position as Cantor could be blindsided by a nobody, then none of them was safe.
One immediate effect of Cantor’s loss is that virtually everyone wrote off the prospect of passing comprehensive immigration reform — a nod to the belief that Cantor’s openness to modest changes in immigration law had made him vulnerable. Then, last Sunday, the new majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, withdrew his support for the Export-Import Bank, a government agency that Cantor also supported but that Tea Party conservatives actively despise. Republicans in Congress now seem determined to do even less than before for fear of incurring the wrath of the far right.
There’s no denying that grassroots activists in Virginia’s 7th District were responsible for Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat’s victory over Cantor (even though Cantor’s pollster is blaming mischievous Democrats). Or that Brat’s upset has generated tremendous uncertainty about who will succeed House Speaker John Boehner when he steps down. As the second-ranking House Republican, Cantor was the heir apparent, despite being widely disliked by his colleagues.
But the way that events have unfolded since his loss suggests that the conventional wisdom about the Tea Party’s gathering strength and the threat it poses to Republican leaders like Boehner has it exactly wrong. Two weeks after the earthquake, Boehner looks more secure than he has in years, and Washington looks like it has drawn the wrong lesson.
From the beginning of the Tea Party insurgency, the movement’s primary target has been Republican leaders and their affiliates. One big catalyst was the support by Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a.k.a. the “Wall Street Bailout.” In the four years since the Tea Party delivered Republicans control of the House, the crucial dynamic within the GOP has been the insurgents’ efforts to impose their will on Boehner and mainstream Republicans, an effort that culminated last year with a challenge to his speakership. One reason Boehner acceded to last October’s government shutdown was a fear that failing to submit to these angry right-wingers would cost him his job.
It’s now clear that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that Boehner is in any danger, or that he ever was. Last year’s coup attempt was a marvel of ham-handedness. The plotters openly hatched their scheme at Bullfeathers, a Capitol Hill bar, where fellow patrons overheard them and alerted the press. When the time came to vote against Boehner, many of the plotters lost their nerve. And since they couldn’t settle on an alternative, they mostly wound up voting for each other. Republican Representative Trent Franks of Arizona put it best when he characterized the scheme as “a ridiculous miscalculation on the part of a sincere, but completely inept” group of colleagues.
Cantor’s loss was a bona fide example of conservative grassroots strength, and as such a good argument that that brand of conservatism deserves to be represented in the GOP’s leadership. But once again, Tea Partiers couldn’t prop up any plausible candidates. One by one, the movement’s leading lights — Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, and Jim Jordan of Ohio — all took a pass. In the end, a pair of challengers did launch quixotic campaigns for majority leader and majority whip and were soundly defeated. It’s remarkable that, after four years, an insurgency against Republican leaders cannot even manage to field viable replacements. And it exposes the Tea Party’s weakness in the House. “I think this was our best shot to change leadership, not November,” a despondent Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, a movement stalwart, admitted after Thursday’s leadership elections.
In the wake of Cantor’s loss, Republican members of Congress will certainly want to tread carefully on issues dear to the Tea Party. Many are vulnerable, as Cantor was, to a primary challenge from the right. On the other hand, the failure of the hard right to extend its influence to Republican leadership races ought to liberate Boehner and McCarthy to do more, not less. Sure, that might entail relying on Democratic votes. But after the latest Tea Party flop, the idea that this might cost them their jobs should seem less like a threat than a punchline.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.