By Russell Berman - 06/07/14 12:04 PM EDT
CULPEPER, Va. – To hear Eric Cantor and his advisers tell it, there’s really nothing to see here.
Sure, the House majority leader and six-term incumbent is spending $1 million and counting to fend off a primary challenge from a college professor, David Brat, who has never won an election.
And sure, his most recent campaign mailers have positioned Cantor as the chief obstacle to immigration reform and adopted the harsh rhetoric of ardent immigration foes like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
But that doesn’t mean, his advisers insist, that Cantor is actually in trouble.
“I’m just not worried,” said Ray Allen, Cantor’s Richmond-based political adviser.
Neither is the candidate himself, who said he is treating the primary on Tuesday the same as any election.
“We have always taken every race seriously, and we’re taking this one seriously,” Cantor said in a brief interview Thursday as he was campaigning at a county fair in Culpeper. “We’re feeling really good about where we are and looking for a big win Tuesday.”
Cantor spent nearly $750,000 in his 2012 primary and came away with 79 percent of the vote against a token Republican challenger who spent just over $2,000.
Brat, who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College, has put up more of a fight.
His campaign website shows Cantor talking to President Obama with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the background.
He’s spent $122,000 as of his most recent federal campaign filing, and he has drawn support in recent weeks from conservative talk radio hosts Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, who reportedly drew 500 people to a Brat rally in the district last week.
Brat’s Tea Party supporters sent Cantor a message last month at a local party convention, booing the incumbent’s speech and then voting out his pick for county GOP chairman.
“I think I’m peaking at the exact right time,” Brat said in an interview. He’s gone after Cantor for failing — despite repeated votes in the House — to repeal or defund ObamaCare, voting for a clean debt ceiling increase in February and for not doing enough to rein in entitlement spending.
With no public polling of the race, it’s unclear whether the attention Brat has drawn to the race will translate into votes on Tuesday.
A Cantor loss would shock the political establishment. No majority leader has been ousted in a primary in modern times.
But even a strong showing by Brat, such as winning more than 40 percent of the vote, would be at least mildly embarrassing for a man poised to be the next Speaker of the House.
“I do think it’ll be closer” than 2012, said Bryce Reeves, a Republican state senator who has endorsed Cantor. “There’s this feeling in the grassroots that he’s not around enough in the district.”
As majority leader, Cantor must spend more time both in Washington and out on the road fund-raising than an average member. But he remains a fixture at events in the seventh district, which covers both the Richmond suburbs and the more rural territory in and around Culpeper to the north and west.
He made a strong showing at the fair, known as Culpeperfest, where a small army of young Cantor volunteers in red, “Team Cantor” T-shirts handed out stickers and yard signs. Families swarmed Cantor when he arrived, as he mingled and posed for pictures.
Brat drew much less notice, and a smaller group of supporters roamed the booths and manned his candidate table, encouraging fair-goers to attend a town hall forum he was holding that evening at a VFW hall a short drive away.
About 50 people showed up, and Brat told them that if he stood a chance to win Tuesday, they each needed to bring 20 more people to the polls.
Cantor’s aides find it laughable that Tea Party activists would criticize a lawmaker who has become a Democratic poster child for lockstep GOP opposition to the Obama agenda. It was Cantor, they note, who rallied House Republicans to unanimously oppose the stimulus package in 2009, and it was Cantor who Democrats blamed for killing a grand bargain on the deficit in 2011.
Yet on the airwaves and in mailboxes, the Cantor campaign isn’t smiling. Television ads label Brat as a “liberal college professor” who served on an economic advisory board for former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine at a time when Kaine was pushing through tax increases. And after Brat said he wouldn’t spend more money on Social Security and Medicare, Cantor sent out a mailer accusing him of advocating for a cut in benefits for current seniors.
Brat says Cantor is “lying” on both accounts.
Cantor’s staffers say he spends heavily in every campaign and can do so more easily this year because Democrats aren’t even fielding a candidate against him in the general election.
But in an era when even stalwart conservatives have faced well-funded challenges from the right, the early barrage against Brat was aimed as a warning shot against groups such as the Club for Growth, which have stayed out of the race.
The animating issue in the race’s home stretch has been immigration reform, a topic on which Cantor has been attacked from all sides.
With help from Ingraham, Brat has denounced Cantor’s support for a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, and he said that if Cantor makes it through his primary, he’ll bring an “amnesty bill” to the House floor.
“He’s obviously for it. He wrote the House principles,” Brat said of Cantor, referring to a one-page document the GOP leadership released in January that called for citizenship for some young illegal immigrants and a path to legal status short of citizenship for other illegal immigrants.
Brat said even though Cantor has yet to even introduce his plan to provide a path to citizenship for some immigrant children, his public support for the idea had helped cause the recent flood of migrant children to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s tragic,” he said during his town hall in Culpeper. “If you announce you’re going to have a Kids Act, you just announced, ‘Send your kids over.’”
When Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) came to Cantor’s backyard last week to call him out for stalling action on immigration reform, Brat and his supporters suggested it was part of a plan to bolster Cantor’s backing among conservatives. Ingraham said Cantor was “touring the country” with Gutierrez, a leading Democratic advocate of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In fact, Cantor and Gutierrez appeared together at a single event in New York last year, where Cantor paid homage to the nation’s immigrant heritage but did not discuss an overhaul of the current system.
“To the best of my knowledge, they have never met on any issue, including immigration, one-on-one,” Gutierrez spokesman Douglas Rivlin said.
Cantor’s campaign has responded aggressively to Brat’s attacks, sending out a mail piece touting the majority leader as the man “stopping Barack Obama and Harry Reid from giving amnesty to illegal aliens.” The ad highlights a quote from the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling Cantor “the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.”
Cantor told The Hill he had been “consistent” in his position on immigration: He opposes the Senate bill that passed a year and has offered to work with Obama on border security and on legislation to give a path to citizenship for children brought illegally across the border by their parents.
That proposal, which was never finished, is not coming to the House floor anytime soon, Cantor said.
“No, because we need to make sure that that’s it,” he said. Cantor warned that Democrats would try to use the Kids Act as a “vehicle” to attach broader immigration measures, or even the Senate bill, and jam it through the House.
The Kids Act, he said, will not come to a vote without an “agreement from this president and the Senate” that they would not insist on other measures addressing the full 11 million estimated illegal immigrants.
“Let’s work where we can in common rather than trying to do this comprehensive thing, which is not going to happen,” Cantor said.