It’s hard to overstate the recent influence of Eric Cantor. In 2009, he helped engineer the Republican strategy of unanimous opposition to President Obama. In 2011, as house majority leader, he derailed a “grand bargain” that would have cemented conservative policy reforms—and given Obama a bipartisan victory. He had huge influence with Tea Party members of the conservative coalition, and was widely seen as House Speaker John Boehner’s successor.
But now thanks to David Brat, a conservative economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, Cantor is on the outside, a victim of right-wing anger, local discontent, and his own hubris. He ran a bad campaign, attacking the right-wing Brat as a tax-hiking liberal, backpedaling on immigration, and neglecting the get-out-the-vote effort that could have saved his candidacy.
Not only is this unprecedented—Cantor is the only house majority leader in history (the office was created in 1899 during the 56th Congress) to lose his seat in a primary—but it completely shifts the landscape of Washington politics. If there’s a pop cultural analogue, it’s not House of Cards—the Beltway’s current source for fictional nods—but Game of Thrones. In its effect, Cantor’s downfall was the execution of Eddard Stark—a sudden, unexpected event that upsets the status quo, with consequences for everyone, and everything, in its orbit.
Politically, it upends the House Republican caucus. With Cantor out as majority leader—he’ll resign the position at the end of July—ambitious Republicans are jockeying for their chance at the spotlight. As house majority whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California is next in line behind Cantor and sure to run for the spot, but he’ll face competition from figures like Rep. Jim Jordan, former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the popular conservative lawmaker from Texas, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House. More broadly, as Sahil Kapur notes for Talking Points Memo, John Boehner’s speakership is now potentially up for grabs; with Cantor out of the game, the court changes for everyone who wants the position.
But the fallout goes beyond the leadership scramble. Remember, Cantor wasn’t a moderate Republican: In ideology and tactics—he supported the dangerous stand-off over the debt ceiling—he was aligned with the Tea Party. Yes, he had his feuds and disagreements with conservative activists. But given his record, he should have been safe. As my colleague John Dickerson noted, Cantor’s ouster is a warning to all Republicans. It doesn’t matter that most incumbents will win renomination or that this upset, given both Cantor’s poor performance and Brat’s unexpected skill, was a fluke. Republicans are shaken, and that could lead the party down a deeper well of obstruction and radicalism.
If that happens, we can finally say goodbye to the productive phase of the Obama administration. Insofar that immigration reform was alive, there was some hope that, with an election ahead, Republican leaders might work with the White House on a bill. With Cantor’s defeat, however, that hope is dead, replaced with the smoking residue of the Tea Party double-tap. The same goes for the proposed bill to repair the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, which dropped the “pre-clearance” provision of the law, opening the door to strict voter identification throughout the states for the former Confederacy.
Cantor was one of the few Republicans to support a response to the court. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside … and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected,” he said last June. Later, when lawmakers announced a plan to strengthen the VRA, his office was “noncommittal,” but House Democrats were confident that he could play a powerful role in making the bill a reality. “He’s been very positive in his response and I’m hopeful we can bring this bill to the floor before the summer,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer in March.
Now the probably-dead effort to restore the Voting Rights Act to its former glory is certainly-dead. That makes Cantor’s defeat a clear victory for voter ID supporters and other conservatives who view “voter integrity” as more critical than voter access.
With all of that said, it’s not clear how this works politically for Democrats, who—as the New York Times reports—were thrilled with his ouster. “An informal dinner party at the Georgetown apartment of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, turned into a celebration,” writes the Times. Given Cantor’s occasional role as the destructive, trickster god of American politics, Pelosi’s toasting is appropriate.
At the same time, however, Cantor’s loss emboldens the Tea Party and destroys the already small odds for bipartisan cooperation. Barring a Democratic sweep in November—which almost isn’t possible—gridlock is guaranteed for the next two years.
If there’s an upside for Democrats, it’s this: In their drive to pacify the right wing, Republicans could continue their alienation from the American public. In which case, come 2016, the Democratic Party will likely retain its dubious crown as the less hated of the two political parties. No, it’s nothing to brag about. But in the zero-sum game of American politics, it’s a huge advantage.