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U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia lost in his his re-election bid, falling in yesterday's Republican Primary in the 7th Congressional District to a political newcomer, Randolph-Macon Economics Professor David Brat. Despite a huge fundraising advantage, Cantor wound up losing by more than 10 percentage points.
In a speech last night, Cantor urged his supporters to continue advancing their principles.
"I know there are a lot of long faces here tonight and it's disappointing, sure," Cantor said. "But I believe in this country, I believe there is opportunity around the next corner for all of us. So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things we believe in."
But Brat had said Cantor wasn't a true conservative, hitting him particularly hard on immigration. Brat was backed by grassroots tea party activists, who were frustrated by what they called “establishment politics as usual” in Washington.
In his post-primary speech to supporters, Brat called his election a “miracle” and said he did not run against Cantor — whom he called a good man — but instead, ran to return conservative principles to Washington. He said include a commitment to free markets, equal treatment under the law for all people, and a strong national defense, among other things:
"The constitution has enumerated powers belonging to the federal government. All the rest of the powers in this country belong to the states and the people," Brat said.
Cantor was elected to the U.S. House in 2000 and became Majority Leader in 2011. He is the first U.S. House Majority Leader ever to lose a primary. Brat will now face off against Democrat Jack Trammel in the general election. Trammel is a fellow professor at Randolph-Macon College.
Political watchers across the U.S. are trying to make sense of Cantor's loss last evening. Some experts, however, are saying not to read too much into it.
The House Majority Leader can be likened to the gatekeeper for the party in power. The gate was unhinged last evening to the surprise of campaign analysts like Kyle Kondick of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“I think it’s probably one of the big political stunners over the past decade. This is a real big one," Kondik says.
Cantor’s primary loss to tea party favorite Dave Brat is eliciting glee from many Democrats, with their party’s campaign arm in the House sending out emails dotted with exclamation points. While Northern Virginia Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly says he’s not gloating, he says Cantor’s loss shows the GOP is in the midst of a civil war.
“This is a seismic event not only in Virginia politics but nationwide. This is going to unsettle the national Republican Party like nothing we’ve seen in recent years," Connolly says.
But Kondik cautions against reading too much into Cantor’s primary loss.
“For as many incumbents who are afraid of losing a primary and act like it, this is really more the exception than the rule even if it is the majority leader. This is only the second incumbent to lose a primary this election, so let’s not go overboard about it," Kondik says.
Kondik does say Cantor’s loss probably means immigration reform is off the table for the rest of this session.
Cantor's loss in the primary is not just a defeat for an incumbent Republican. It's also a loss for the influence of Virginia. The next Congress will have freshmen House members representing Virginia's 7th, 8th and 11th districts. Considering the years of seniority and influence from Congress members in those districts, that's not just a loss for the constituents.
"When you add up the seniority of Frank Wolf and Jim Moran and Eric Cantor, you're talking about an extraordinary loss for Virginia on a number of influential committees," says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Decades of experience will be wiped out when three brand new members of Congress replace two senior members and the House Republican leader. Kondik says that's significant, although recent changes may mean that experience has less influence than it's had in the past.
"Given some of the changes including things about earmarks, I'm not sure that leadership means quite what it used to. In fact it's very odd for the House majority leader to lose," he says.
Cantor's loss will go down in the history as the first time a House majority leader lost a primary election.