Washington • Republican tea party forces are rejoicing and the party establishment is somber or altogether silent in the wake of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat at the hands of political neophyte David Brat, an unflinching foe of loosening immigration laws.
Speaker John Boehner praised Cantor as "a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis" in a statement that steered clear of the issue that Brat put at the center of his campaign and has divided the party for years.
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the head of the House GOP campaign committee, said Cantor has "been a steadfast leader for our party, and a great friend and mentor for so many House Republicans."
Neither man took note of Brat’s victory. And party chairman Reince Priebus, who has spoken of the need to broaden the party’s appeal, offered no comment after Cantor’s shocking loss at the hands of an underfunded challenger who warned the seven-term incumbent would line up for amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally.
Cantor himself conceded defeat, telling downcast supporters, "Obviously we came up short."
Brat and his supporters in the ranks of the tea party were triumphant.
"This is a miracle from God," said the economics professor, who toppled the second-most powerful Republican in the House in an upset that few, if any, in the party’s high command saw coming.
But as he looked ahead to November’s elections, Brat declined to spell out policy specifics.
"I’m a Ph.D. in economics, and so you analyze every situation uniquely," he told MSNBC in an interview in which he said he preferred to keep the focus on the "celebratory issues" of Tuesday’s results.
His allies sounded more than pleased. "The grassroots is in revolt and marching," said L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of ForAmerica.
The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for tea party forces, although last week they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and hope State Sen. Chris McDaniel will achieve victory then.
Cantor’s defeat was the first primary setback for a senior leader in Congress in recent years. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both lost their seats at the polls in the past two decades, but they fell to Republicans, not to challengers from within their own parties.
The outcome may well mark the end of Cantor’s political career, although at 51 he has plenty of time to attempt a future comeback. Aides did not respond Tuesday night when asked if the majority leader would run a write-in campaign in the fall.
But the impact of Cantor’s surprise loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clearer still. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Many Republicans say the party can ill afford to stick to an uncompromising stand on the issue, given the increasing political influence of Hispanic voters.
And a Democrat, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, put it even more bluntly.
"For Republicans in the House, my sense is they are now squeezed between doing things the tea party way or doing things the American way," he said in an appearance Wednesday morning on MSNBC.
Appearing on the same network, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said he was worried that the message from Cantor’s stunning loss may be even more congressional gridlock. Asked if he thought immigration legislation was dead, King replied, "I’m concerned that Ted Cruz supporters, Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse" to shut down the government.
"This is not conservatism to me," King said. "Shutting down the government is not being conservative."
Cantor had been tugged by two warring forces in his party and in recent weeks sought to emphasize his opposition to far-reaching immigration legislation as Brat’s challenge gained force. Last month, a feisty crowd of Brat supporters booed Cantor in front of his family at a local party convention.
Still, neither he nor other House leaders betrayed any serious concern that his tenure was in danger, and his allies leaked a private poll in recent days that claimed he had a comfortable lead over Brat.Next Page >
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