AFRICANGLOBE – The majority leader in the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, was defeated by a Tea Party challenger on Tuesday night in a shock primary election result that may turn out to be the biggest upset of the year in American politics.
Cantor, the second most senior Republican in the House, who had been tipped to take over from the speaker, John Boehner, lost the opportunity to stand for re-election in his Virginia seat in a surprise defeat by the Tea Party candidate David Brat.
Brat took the seat comfortably, almost certainly forcing Cantor out of his position as a top Washington powerbroker for the party.
It is possible, though unlikely, that Cantor could run as a write-in candidate for the relatively safe Republican House seat in Virginia’s seventh district, which neighbours Richmond.
But his defeat by Brat, a relatively unknown economics professor, will send shockwaves through a party leadership that thought it had survived the 2014 primary election season with relatively limited damage from the Tea Party. “Obviously we came up short,” Cantor said in a brief concession speech.
“This is a miracle from God,” said a triumphant Brat.
Boehner praised Cantor as “a good friend and a great leader”. Other Republican leaders, including party chairman Reince Priebus, were silent.
The clash between mainstream Republican leaders in Washington and more conservative Tea Party rivals has dominated US politics in recent years, leading to the government shutdown last year.
The decision by Boehner and Cantor to ultimately face down their Tea Party wing over its shutdown demands was thought to have taken the momentum out of the upstart movement and a number of mainstream Senate incumbents had recently seen off primary challenges from the right.
In Tuesday’s primary election in South Carolina, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham comfortably beat six separate Tea Party challengers and avoided a run-off election by gaining more than 50% of the vote.
Cantor, who was already seen as among the more conservative members of the House leadership, had been widely expected to win his primary comfortably. He heavily outspent his opponent with a relatively negative campaign pointing out Brat’s lack of experience.
But Brat successfully criticised Cantor’s support for immigration reform and financial compromise efforts such as extending the debt ceiling and budget authority – factors that are likely to send a chill through attempts to bridge the already deep divide between Republicans and Democrats in Washington.
Speaking as the official results showed Brat ahead by 55% to 45%, Cantor told supporters in a Richmond hotel ballroom: “I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight. It’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”
Internal polling by Cantor’s team ahead of the election had shown him ahead by some 34 percentage points.
A spokeswoman for House Democrats claimed on Tuesday evening that the result showed Republican voters were rejecting the House Republican agenda:
Yet the result may all but guarantee that Democrat priorities such as immigration reform will not pass the Republican-controlled House in future as its leaders seek to deter future Tea Party challenges.
Brat received relatively little help from national Tea Party groups and was outspent by $5.2m to $120,000 by Cantor, according to FEC data up to 21 May. His win shows the continued strength of grassroots feeling against Washington establishment candidates, a mood that may yet dominate the rest of Obama’s second term in the White House.
In November’s election for the House seat, Brat will face Democratic nominee Jack Trammell, also a professor at Randolph-Macon College on the outskirts of Richmond.
By: Dan Roberts