On Tuesday Republican primary voters asserted themselves in spectacular fashion by wresting the GOP nomination from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and giving it to quirky economist Dave Brat, who now looks very likely to win the seat in the fall. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill primary upset. Because Cantor was second in command to Speaker John Boehner among Republicans in the House, his defeat has set off a scramble for power, the outcome of which has yet to be determined.
Cantor’s defeat has led to searching questions about what exactly Brat’s victory means? Let’s run through a few different interpretations.
Immigration. One widely-held view is that Cantor’s defeat means that immigration reform is dead. There is one problem with this line of thinking: comprehensive immigration reform, as endorsed by the Obama White House and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ), among others, was already dead. The fundamental bone of contention is whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, provided they jump through various hoops, like paying back taxes and demonstrating English language proficiency, most of which would be impossible to implement.
Grassroots conservatives staunchly opposed a soft amnesty along these lines when it was proposed by the Bush administration, and they continue to oppose it now. They’ve long had the numbers and the influence in Congress to keep legislation to this effect from making it to President Barack Obama’s desk. It’s true that Cantor and other Republicans, including Boehner, had tried to find ways to revive the immigration reform effort, but they weren’t gaining much traction.
Tea Party vs. the Establishment. Though Cantor is now being portrayed as an establishment Republican par excellence, it is important to remember that he had long styled himself as a more conservative alternative to Boehner, who was always careful to cultivate allies to his right. Cantor predates the Tea Party, and his urbane manner contrasted with the populist style that is a hallmark of the Tea Party right.