Not long after the 2008 election, after his party had promoted him to minority whip, Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor summoned a few colleagues to his condo. The topic: How Republicans could take back Congress, as soon as possible.
“We’re not here to cut deals and get crumbs and stay in the minority for another 40 years,” he told them, according to some later reporting by Time’s Michael Grunwald. “We’re going to fight these guys. We’re down, but things are going to change.” The party would deny President Obama any bipartisan cover on his policies, and then it would beat him.
Cantor’s plan worked better than anyone dared to predict it would. He whipped every single Republican against the Democrats’ stimulus bill; his staff celebrated by sending out a video of Aerosmith playing “Back in the Saddle.” In April 2009, when he mused publicly that Republicans “could take back the majority in 2010,” election handicapper Stu Rothenberg chortled that “the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero.”
Tonight, Cantor surprised the handicappers again. Just days before his June 10 primary the leader’s campaign shared polling that had him up by 34 points on conservative challenger David Brat. The challenger was “expected to fall far short,” reported the Washington Post, and “the question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be.”
Wrong again, and wrong for a whole new reason. In the short time between Cantor’s rise to the leadership and his humiliating defeat—the first primary thumping of a majority leader ever, since the position was created in 1899—the conservative movement’s rumbling populism got the better of its alleged maestro.
Republicans, none of whom are old enough to remember 1899 clearly, are lost for explanations. According to some, the leader was undone by bad staff work. He’d become too regal, too inaccessible in the district that kept re-electing him by rote. He was unresponsive to the Tea Party, when he used to be their guy in the leadership—their bulwark against the recidivist sellout John Boehner. At the start of this Congress, hadn’t right-wing Florida Rep. Ted Yoho signaled his independence from Boehner by voting for Cantor to replace him as speaker?
Yes, he had, with good reason. From the stimulus vote on through the 2011 debt limit fight, Cantor was the Tea Whisperer, the “wonk,” the “young gun” who wanted the party to run on ideas. He’d remind conservatives that he was elected in James Madison’s old House seat—you know, James Madison, author of the Constitution. “Madison argued that electoral accountability was one of the bulwarks against tyranny embedded in our constitutional structure,” he wrote in National Review in 2010. “The tea-party movement is appropriately vowing to hold elected representatives to account.”
In power, at least through 2011, Cantor scouted for openings that conservatives could jump through. He acceded to their demand that the first continuing resolution—the money to fund the government, in lieu of an actual appropriations bill—defunded the Affordable Care Act. (Senate Democrats reversed this.) It was Cantor, more than any other Republican with clout, who protected his conference from having to vote on a debt limit-raising deal that would have raised taxes.
But conservatives didn’t win those battles. They didn’t win in 2012—which was sort of the point of punting the hardest choices past 2011 and past the election. Some of the conservatives who lost in 2012 linked up with the conservative counter-establishment—Republicans like Allen West, who’d attacked Cantor for giving the House a light work schedule, and Joe Walsh, who’d voted against every eventual GOP-Obama compromise backed by Cantor. “Conservatives in the caucus have never trusted him and don’t like him,” Walsh told me.
In 2013, Cantor and the counter-establishment flew apart. Less than a month after Obama’s second inauguration, Cantor debuted a vision for a new GOP that would “make life work.” What if the GOP incentivized people to buy better health care and seek more useful college degrees? What if it went a little easier on immigrants? “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home,” Cantor said at a February 2013 speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He pushed through school choice bills (The Student Success Act), and helped amend the farm bill to add more work requirements for food-stamp recipients.
None of this was “liberal,” per se. It just wasn’t what the conservative base had asked for, campaigned for, voted for. It was the agenda of the establishment, simpatico with the Chamber of Commerce. The business community had been there to elect Republicans in 2010 (and with less success in 2012), but in 2013 it was asking for Republicans to pass some sort of immigration reform and avoid a government shutdown. Cantor went with Democrats on a three-day tour to boost reform; he sought out a number of ways to avoid a shutdown, including a failed gambit to split the “defund Obamacare” vote from a separate appropriations vote.
Conservatives came to view Cantor as at best unreliable, at worst an outright enemy. Brat entered the race against him in January 2014, with no obvious support beyond what he could get from talk-radio personalities. Ann Coulter endorsed him, as did Mark Levin (author of a book that argues for a new constitutional convention to enforce conservatism), as did Laura Ingraham.
Cantor had no idea how to fight back. The national press (led by the Washington Post’s Robert Costa) finally cottoned on to his problems in May, after local activists in Cantor’s district beat his choice for a party leadership role. The video of that meeting, shared widely on conservative sites, revealed a party leader struggling to understand what his constituents wanted from him.
“It is easy to sit in the rarefied environs of academia, in the ivory towers of a college campus, with no accountability and no consequence,” said Cantor, sniping at Brat.
The crowd erupted with jeers.
“You throw stones at those of us who are working every day to make a difference,” said Cantor. “It’s easy to say you are going to stand up to Obama and the left-wing attack machine. But it is an entirely different thing to actually do it, to stand up and be counted.”
That got some cheers, but a voice rang out louder than all that: A man yelling, “Then let’s see you do it!”
Cantor, helplessly, tried to tell the truth. “After Obama was elected, I stood up and I led the fight in opposition to Obamacare,” he said. “I personally went to the White House. I confronted Obama in person and held up a printed copy of the 2,000 pages of Obamacare and asked him to defend it. And he couldn’t.”
It sounded fine, until Cantor turned to his attack line: “My opponent was MIA, missing in action on Obamacare.” The crowd booed loudly, and booed some more when Cantor attacked Brat for taking a job on an advisory board created by Virginia’s Democratic governor.
“Wait a minute!” said Cantor, desperately. “Here’s the point. The point is, another individual in his position chose to remove himself from the board when a governor sought to increase taxes.”
This was incoherent. Was the lesson that conservatives should quit to make a statement or that they should stick around and fight? What did any of this have to do with the agenda Cantor was pursuing in Congress? The meaning of “fighting back” had changed, and Cantor couldn’t change with it. He’d helped the party claw back power with a strategy of total opposition. The populists and the business groups went along with that. When they split, Cantor failed to realize that the populists were still demanding total opposition, whether it worked or not, however it polled.
And he failed to realize that he was outnumbered.