House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the Speaker-in-waiting, was defeated Tuesday in a primary election by a little-known conservative economics professor, David Brat, in one of the most stunning upsets in modern political history.
Brat defeated Cantor, a six-term incumbent, despite having no experience in elected office and being outspent by nearly 20-to-1. The Associated Press called the race for Brat shortly after 8 p.m., an hour after polls closed in Virginia’s 7th District. Brat was leading Cantor, 56 percent to 44 percent, with 98 percent of precincts reporting.
It is perhaps the most significant jolt to the Republican establishment since the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009. While conservative activists have ousted veteran Republicans such as Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah) and Richard Lugar (Ind.), a sitting majority leader has never been defeated in a primary election.
As recently as Friday, Cantor and his team projected confidence.
“I’m just not worried,” Cantor’s Richmond-based political adviser, Ray Allen, told The Hill. Cantor’s own polling showed him with a comfortable lead.
Brat told The Hill he was “peaking at exactly the right time.”
And indeed he was.
Brat hammered Cantor over his support for some parts of immigration reform, accusing him of pushing for “amnesty” for the children of illegal immigrants.
In the end, Cantor’s defeat may doom immigration reform for years to come.
Cantor, standing alongside his wife, Diana, made a brief appearance before dispirited supporters in Richmond.
He said serving as majority leader had been one of the highest honors of his life.
“I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight, and, um, it’s disappointing, sure,” he said. “But I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us. So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things that we believe in for the conservative cause, because those solutions of ours are the answers to so many of problems that people are facing today.”
There were warning signs for Cantor.
Tea Party activists recently ousted a close Cantor ally as the 7th District’s committee chairman.
On immigration, Cantor sought to neutralize the issue, running television ads attacking Brat as a “liberal professor” and sending direct mailers that said he fought President Obama on “amnesty.”
“Barack Obama and Harry Reid: Pushing amnesty to give illegal aliens a free ride. Conservative Republican Eric Cantor is stopping this liberal plan,” said one mailer.
Unlike elections in Mississippi and Kentucky, major conservative and Tea Party groups did not flood Cantor’s district with money and rallies.
And Cantor poured money into the race from the beginning.
Wary of allowing Tea Party groups to turn his district into a top battleground, Cantor unleashed an early and heavy barrage of negative ads against Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College who previously lost a race for the state legislature.
Cantor spent more than $1 million on the primary and attacked Brat for serving on an advisory board for former Gov. Tim Kaine at a time when the Democrat was pushing tax increases.
In the waning days of the race, conservative radio stars Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin boosted Brat and condemned Cantor for his positions on immigration.
The attacks came even as Cantor was under fire from advocates of immigration reform for his refusal to bring legislation to the House floor that would offer legal status for some people in the country illegally.
Because Virginia has an open primary system, Brat's campaign urged supporters to recruit Democrats and independents to help oust Cantor, although it was unclear how organized that effort was.
An Ivy League-educated real estate lawyer, Cantor first won election to the House in 2000 after eight years in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Along with Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Cantor was one of the original triumvirate of “Young Guns” that rallied Republican opposition to President Obama’s agenda in 2009 and swept the GOP into the House majority in 2010.
An early victory for Cantor came shortly after Obama’s inauguration in 2009, when as the GOP whip he secured unanimous opposition to the president’s economic stimulus package. Cantor became a frequent foil for the president, and Democrats – and some Republicans – blamed him for torpedoing a grand bargain that Boehner wanted to strike with Obama in 2011.
More recently, however, Cantor became more of a deal-maker in the House, angering some conservatives with his support for a clean debt ceiling increase and his move to circumvent a committee chairman to hammer out a deal on flood insurance legislation earlier this year.
Yet most Republicans believed Cantor would have plenty of support to win the Speaker’s gavel if Boehner stepped aside after the November elections.
Cameron Joseph contributed.