With all that was going on politically in the world, Washington could not stop discussing House of Representative Majority Leader and Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor's stunning primary loss almost a week earlier on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 on the Sunday political talk shows airing Sunday morning, June 15, 2014. On June 10 Cantor experienced a historic primary ouster, never in the position's over 100 years has a House majority leader ever been voted out in the primary stage. In no time, Cantor was out and Republicans were scrambling to decide the next step for the Republican House leadership. Cantor was defeated by the little known Tea Party candidate Dave Brat, an economics professor at a small college, Randolph-Macon College. The primary results shocked Cantor, Brat and the news media. As the week wore on the dust settled, and Cantor resigned from his position as House leader effective July 31, and the Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA will sail into the position with Cantor's blessing. The position of Majority whip is still open, and as is Cantor's future, which what he discussed in his interviews on Sunday.
The surprise upset in the Tuesday, June 10 Republican Virginia primaries for the 7th Congressional District, Cantor loss by over 10 percentage points, 56 to 44 percent to the little known Tea Party challenger David Brat. By 8:25 p.m. it was all over for Cantor. Cantor in his concession speech stated "Obviously we came up short", while Brat in his victory speech exclaimed; "This is a miracle from God that just happened." The 1300 student Randolph-Macon College is now the epicenter for the district with both candidates teaching there, Brat is an economics professor, while his Democratic opponent is Jack Trammell is a sociology professor. The upset was even greater considering that Brat only had $200,000 for the campaign while Cantor had over $5 million to spend.
The primary results shocked Republicans and the House leadership. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH issued the following statement after the results; "Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together. He's a good friend and a great leader, and someone I've come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing. My thoughts are with him and Diana and their kids tonight." Initially there was the same sense of glee coming from Democrats as the Tea Party over Cantor's downfall, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's, D-CA initial statement read; "The American people should take notice. Tonight, the Tea Party defeated Republican Leader Eric Cantor who is one of the most extreme Members of Congress. Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans' extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight, is a major victory for the Tea Party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right."
The day after his defeat Cantor held a press conference announcing that he is stepping down from his post as House Majority Leader on July 31, though he will remain a Congressman through the end of his term. Cantor stated; "Now, while I intend to serve out my term as a member of Congress from the Seventh District of Virginia, effective July 31st, I will be stepping down as majority leader. It is with great humility that I do so, knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position." Cantor also made it clear he will not mount a write-in campaign for the general election, but implied his future will still be tied to conservative issues and public service, explaining; "While I will not be on the ballot in November, I will be a champion for conservatives across the nation who are dedicated to preserving liberty and providing opportunity."
Cantor also endorsed McCarthy as his successor for House Majority Leader virtually ending any hope the Tea Party had that Cantor's defeat will lead to a House leadership post, stating; "I can tell you that if my dear friend and colleague Kevin McCarthy does decide to run, I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader. And I will be backing him with my full support." Speaker Boehner also said a few words; "Eric, we salute you, and we thank you, and your amazing staff as well. We're losing a leader, but you'll never stop being our colleague and our friend."
As for the leadership race in the House to be voted on Thursday, June 19, 2014 Rep. McCarthy as Cantor's anointed successor as House Majority Leader is leading in a race that has seen Rep. Pete Sessions, R-TX and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-TX in and out of the race, followed by Tea Party candidate Raul Labrador, R-ID, a two term congressman now vying for the position. Sessions removed himself from the race on June 13, stating that "Today, it became obvious to me that the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party. At this critical time, we must remain unified as a Republican Conference." Labrador has been appealing his cause in the media, convincing the constituents to encourage their representatives to vote for him. Labrador believes that "the message from Tuesday is clear - Americans are looking for a change in the status quo."
McCarthy, a fourth term congressman, will see the fastest rise up the leadership ladder in history if elevated to the post. Although he has said nothing publicly about running for the position, he has been working back channels to gain the votes of his fellow Congressman. McCarthy does not want simply enough votes for majority leader; he wants a solid vote to ensure he keeps he position in the new congressional term. McCarthy is considered more moderate than Cantor and even the Democrat House Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer, D-MD is looking forward to working with him. The race for McCarthy's old post, filling the position of Majority Whip is still on with Rep. Steve Scalise, R-LA in the lead, but two other candidates remain in the race; Reps. Peter Roskam, R-ILL and Marlin Stutzman, R-IND; the candidates represent the different conservative factions within the Republican Party.
Cantor, 51 was first elected in 2000 and sped up the leadership ladder becoming chief deputy whip in 2002, and was made the House Majority Leader in 2010 after only six terms. Cantor was also the only Jewish Republican in either Houses of Congress. A prolific fundraiser for the Republican Party, Cantor was on path to become the next Speaker of the House, once John Boehner would retire. Brat focused on his campaign on ending Cantor's path to the speakership, saying he will be "Eric Cantor's term limit." Of all the reasons for his loss, most are rejecting the notion that Cantor's religion was at responsible for the loss, especially in light of Brat's Christian evangelical background.
Cantor tried to act positive about his loss in his appearance on two of the talk shows, ABC News "This Week," and CNN's "State of the Union." He also hinted that he might not be finished with politics, but did not give an exact definition as to what he might be intending to do neither ruling out running for office again nor working as a lobbyist. Cantor reiterated the shock of the primary results, but thinks there must be a reason for it; "I don't think anybody in the country thought that the outcome would be what it was. And, you know, I just am a believer, as I said that night, and subsequently, that there are some things that happen for a reason and we may not be able to really discern it now and given the perspective of time, I think we're going to be able to look back at this, and what seemed really bad at the time may turn out to be really good.
The whole primary campaign centered on immigration reform and particularly allowing any amnesty for illegal immigrants, something which Brat was firmly against, while Cantor seemed to waver about in his position. On May 28, Brat summed up the main argument of his campaign; "Eric Cantor has been the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty…. no Republican in this country is more liberal on immigration." Cantor had been accepting that there should be some pathway for illegal immigrants who came to the country as children. With immigration reform such an important campaign issue, instead Cantor boasted that he helped block the comprehensive Senate bill which allowed a path for citizenship for the country's 13 million illegal immigrants giving "illegal aliens amnesty." The Republicans leadership in the House was considering passing piece meal bill to reform immigration laws, but now the possibility of that happening this summer as planned seems highly unlikely.
Democrats including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY believes Cantor's loss also however, was related his position on immigration, just not for being too liberal, but being too conservative. Schumer pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham's, R-SC primary win against six Tea Party challengers the same night, but still managed to capture 50 percent of the vote and avoiding a run-off. According to Schumer the difference was Graham was part of the Gang of Eight senators who worked to pass the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed in June 2013, and Cantor was against amnesty. Schumer explained in a statement; "Tonight's election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration: The Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat. Cantor's defeat does not change the fundamental fact that Republicans will become a minority party if they don't address our broken immigration system."
Cantor seems to object to the common excuse given that his position on immigration reform was the reason he was voted out. Justifying this position, Cantor told ABC News; "First of all, I don't think there was any one particular reason why the outcome was what it was. If you think about it, there are a number of things that go through voters' minds when they go into the voting booth. But as far as immigration is concerned, my position never wavered. I have always taken the position that I'm not for a comprehensive amnesty bill."
According to Cantor he stands firm that he was against a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants, but for granting some sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants that were children when they entered the country. Cantor clarified this on ABC; "I've always said that we ought to deal with the kids who did not break any laws and themselves came into this country, in many cases, unbeknownst to them. I've always said that, and it's a principled position. And it's one I think that offers the only plausible way forward. Now, did that infuriate folks on both sides? Sure. But it is a principled position. I think an incremental reform approach to immigration is what we need."
Even though Cantor does not think he lost because of immigration reform the chances of it passing in the Republican House is now basically nil, as is any bill replacing President Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act which has staunch opposition from Republicans. President Obama still believes that Cantor's loss does not translate into the end of immigration reform this year, stating on Wednesday, June 11; "It's interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts, and some conventional wisdom talks about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now. I fundamentally reject that and I will tell the speaker of the House he needs to reject it."
One cannot account a position on one issue as the whole reason for a large defeat of an incumbent in a leadership position, but maybe the balancing act of being a national figure and constituent satisfaction at home. While incumbents rarely ever lose a primary bid, most upsets have especially with those in leadership positions have been at the general election. The disconnect to the needs of the constituents is mostly the reason behind the losses. Despite losing his seat to Brat, Cantor has every intention of voting for him in the general election. Cantor told CNN; "Listen, I want a Republican to hold this seat, of course, of course. This is about making sure we have a strong Republican majority in the House, I'm hoping we can take it in the Senate."
So far nobody knows what Cantor's next move will be, will he run again to regain his seat in 2016, run for the Virginia governorship, or any other political office or even the private sector. It does seem however, that Cantor plans to remain dedicated to conservative issues and causes. Cantor expressed on CNN; "I don't have any regrets because I remain focused on the mission that I'm about." Continuing Cantor hinted about his political future; "I'm looking forward. A lot of folks are going to be interested in that, but to me the problems that people are facing in this county are a lot greater than any setback, political setback, personal setback that I got. I am very focused on continuing on the mission that I've tried to do in Washington." When CNN asked about potentially running for governor of Virginia, Cantor replied; "I'm not ready to close out any options right now." Cantor told ABC that in general; "I want to take what I've been doing here ... and be able to really look towards the future so I can really continue to promote and be a champion for the conservative cause. I do want to play a role in the public debate."
In his concession speech on Tuesday, June 10 Cantor stated that being House Leader "has been one of the highest honors of my life." Cantor maintained that he had no regrets about his tenure; "What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have always said we're about is we want to create a Virginia and America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle class families that may not have the opportunity that we have." Concluding, he revealed little about his future plans; "It's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us."
Speaking to ABC News Cantor elaborated just a bit, implying that he still might be considering political options, and will be planning his next career move with his wife Diana; "She and I are going to make some decisions together about how we go forward. I don't want to close off any options right now. I'm just hopeful that I can continue to be a champion for the kinds of things that we are working on here in Washington. I believe after almost 23 years in public service, 23 plus years in public service, that I can play a role and not just in elected office obviously but in the private sector."
After his loss, Cantor did not get much sympathy from Democrats or the Tea Party. House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi said; "It's hard to lose an election. We all know you keep your home fires burning. The people are the boss, they speak." Pelosi also more flippantly stated; "I had as much sympathy for Mr. Cantor as he would want me to have for him." Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate and Tea Party leader expressed that his loss means "The status quo has got to go." Speaking on Fox News Palin elaborated; "Those who have been part of the problem, we see these failed policies and a failed agenda that is really driving America's economy into the ditch, well there's an opportunity at the ballot box to make a change. That's what we saw last night." Even President Obama weighed in on the defeat somewhat echoing Palin on the status quo, Obama expressed at a fundraiser; "At a certain point issues are important enough to fight for. My argument about yesterday's election is not that there was too little politics - there was too little conviction about what was right. If you think because of politics, you want to maintain a status quo that is broken … you don't belong in Washington."
The Tea Party had mostly lost in this year's attempts' to upset the primaries. There only tangible results prior included forcing a run-off on June 24 between the Mississippi Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel and incumbent GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, and John Ratcliffe, the Tea Party challenger ousting Texas Rep. Ralph Hall, 91, the oldest congressman to serve in the House's history in a run-off for the North-East Texas district. Now however, the movement largely deemed defunct has gained new steam and threatening to cause more upsets in the remaining primaries. The Republicans however, will still control of House in the midterm elections, and are fighting with the polls are their side to regain control of the Senate.
- Transcript: Eric Cantor’s news conference following primary loss to David Brat, Washington Post, June 11, 2014
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.