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What Cantor's loss means to Utah, GOP, immigration, more

Published June 11, 2014 7:33 pm

Consequences • Five possible repercussions of the House majority leader's defeat in Virginia primary.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning defeat in the GOP primary in Virginia on Tuesday sent shock waves through Republicans who didn't see it coming.

While Cantor's ouster doesn't impact Utah directly — there are no Beehive State primaries in congressional races this year — it does pack some interesting repercussions.

Here are five takeaways from the Cantor upset:

Tea party flexes muscles again

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While big tea party groups didn't get involved on the ground in Virginia's 7th District, Cantor's loss should help — at least temporarily — galvanize the tea party umbrella organizations and rank and file.

"For the tea party to knock off a sitting majority leader — that's the highest-level Republican they have been able to beat — that has got to energize tea party activists all over the country," says former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his bid for a fourth term in 2010 to a tea party-driven wave.

The victory of now-GOP nominee Dave Brat also showcases the efforts that grass-roots campaigns can play in a congressional race. Cantor had a 26-to-1 cash advantage over Brat, who spent only $200,000 to tap into the anti-Washington fervor that swept him to victory.

It's only one House seat out of 435 that's caused such shock in Washington but it's also the message it sends: No one is safe.

"Symbolically," Bennett says, "I do think that it is huge."

Chaffetz loses a key backer

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Rep. Jason Chaffetz has made no secret that he's eyeing the chairmanship of the Oversight & Government Reform Committee and had hoped to count on Cantor's support to get there.

"He's been very supportive of me," the Utah Republican says. "It was a two-way street."

Chaffetz notes that "it doesn't help" to lose Cantor as majority leader when the decision on committee heads comes up later this year but that he still has good friendships with leaders who are expected to be in place.

"It does reshuffle the deck," Chaffetz says, "and I don't know how that pans out."

Immigration reform was comatose, now dead

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Brat's most sustained criticism of Cantor centered on immigration, even though the incumbent wasn't embracing any major immigration-reform effort.

As a result, Cantor's defeat has politicos in Utah and Washington declaring immigration reform dead, at least for the rest of this year and maybe for much longer than that.

The Senate — with help from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — passed an immigration-reform bill last year, but the House has taken no meaningful action on the issue. Activists held out hope because Republicans such as Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had insisted the House would try to pass at least some immigration-related legislation.

Cantor suggested a bill to let some kids of undocumented immigrants earn a path to citizenship. That was enough for Brat to pounce on and label Cantor a champion for "amnesty," one of the most feared tags in the Republican Party.

GOP still sending mixed messages

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The far right may celebrate Cantor's ouster as evidence that the tea party lives on, but it came on the same day that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emerged victorious despite heavy opposition from tea party groups.

And while a tea party candidate appears poised to win a Senate seat in Nebraska and possibly Mississippi, the conservative movement missed in attempts to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky or his deputy, Sen. John Cornyn in Texas.

Add it all up and it's hard to draw any conclusions from this year's primary elections, other than that campaigning matters and that the old political mantra — all politics is local — remains true.

One thing this muddled year signals is that the Republican Party has yet to coalesce around a strategy or a political vision or a conservative personality, at least not yet.

"This is not just a divide between the establishment and the tea party," said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, a tea party champion who won the seat Bennett once held. "It's a tension between the millions of Americans who feel in one way or another connected to the Republican Party but disconnected from the leadership of that Party."

Fight or face consequences

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If Tuesday's results show anything, it's that candidates who work hard can overcome tough challenges and incumbents who sit tight can lose.

Cantor didn't put in the on-the-ground time like his challenger, dismissing the challenge as something he didn't have to worry about as much. Same goes for Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and ex-Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar as opposed to McConnell, Cornyn and Graham, all of whom saw the tea party threat.

"It [the tea party] gets ignored at your peril," Bennett warns. "We've had example after example of Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, who will take it on in a full-throated, well-managed, well-funded campaign, and they can beat it. However, you take a candidate like Dick Lugar or Thad Cochran and now Eric Cantor, who take it for granted, they are going to win and they don't have to take the tea party on."

tburr@sltrib.com

mcanham@sltrib.com