Cantor’s defeat marks new chapter in GOP civil war

Last Tuesday night, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking loss at the hands of tea party challenger David Brat set the stage for further bloodletting in the ongoing GOP civil war. It is an ironic twist of fate. Cantor was instrumental in leading the tea party revolution that swept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives in 2010. Yet in four short years, he leaves in a defeat of epic proportions, a victim to the very movement he helped usher in.

As the dust settles on this latest battle within the GOP, the 2014 political landscape and quite possibly the 2016 race for the White House are altered in ways seen and unseen. Cantor, the first House Majority Leader in the nation’s history to lose a primary, undoubtedly becomes the most high-profile casualty of the GOP civil war. Moreover, his unexpected defeat could lead to a power vacuum within the GOP House leadership, leading to more infighting and gamesmanship as the party heads into the 2014 midterm General Election and beyond.

With Cantor announcing his resignation as majority leader, effective at the end of July, and Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) rumored departure sooner rather than later, expect an all-out war in the GOP caucus. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the current number three man, will certainly run to succeed Cantor but with the tea party emboldened by the victory over the second most powerful Republican in the House, expect a challenge by the far-right wing of the GOP conference.

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Like all wars, anticipate collateral damage. In this case, the legislative agenda is the biggest victim of the internal turmoil raging throughout the party. Cantor challenger, Brat, an economics professor from Randolph-Macon College ran primarily in opposition to immigration reform, demonizing the incumbent on his support of it. Cantor’s loss from a far-right challenger will strike fear in Republicans throughout the land thereby ending any hopes of a deal on immigration between now and 2016. Nearly 50 percent of registered Republicans disapproved of the job Cantor has been doing. Immigration was already in peril and his stunning defeat (even his internal polling had him way ahead by 34 points; 62-38) will ensure all the fence-sitters get in line.

As if the legislative agenda and the coming war within the House GOP conference are not enough, Cantor’s defeat will place even greater emphasis on the June 24 runoff between six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and his tea party challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel (R). This race, which has been become intensely personal and brutal, will take on greater significance for establishment Republicans and tea party figures. Outside groups have already spent more than $8 million in the Primary Election, an unfathomable amount in a small state that has rarely seen a competitive congressional election. Tea Party luminaries such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Laura Ingraham could weigh-in posing a formidable challenge to the establishment GOP seeking to bolster Cochran as he desperately fights off a razor-sharp tea-party challenge.

Some had written off the tea party after a few losses in earlier primaries, and especially so with the big loss in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell handily defeated Matt Bevin. And Tuesday, South Carolina incumbent Lindsey Graham easily beat back a handful of challengers. However, it is clear that the decisive victory over one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington at the hands of an upstart in Virginia; and Mississippi’s June 24 runoff up for grabs, the tea party has gained its second wind.

The big question still facing the GOP is can it heal itself from these bitter battles, the scars from the ongoing GOP civil war? Even after the smoke clears, a major hurdle going forward will be effectively competing against Democratic challengers in November. Will vanquished foes put aside the rancor and bitterness of primary battles to support party candidates or does the enmity run too deep? This question looms large for the party especially with the Senate hanging in the balance. Clearly, some candidates, especially Sen. McConnell, have an uphill battle and will need the support and votes of his tea party challengers if they hope to win. And if Cantor’s loss is any indication, the tea party supporters have not thrown in the towel yet on trying to seize control of the Lincolns’ Grand Old Party.

Ham is the author of the best-selling book, THE GOP CIVIL WAR: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the GOP.