A little-known economics professor who campaigned against immigration reform defeated the House majority leader in his Republican primary Tuesday.

By Jack Fitzpatrick and Alex Roarty
June 10, 2014
National Journal

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor(Richard A. Bloom)

In one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election on Tuesday to a political unknown who focused his campaign on Cantor's support for a path to citizenship for the children of immigrants.

Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat won the Republican primary in Virginia's 7th Congressional District. Brat had 56 percent of the vote to Cantor's 44 percent when the Associated Press called the race just after 8 p.m.

Cantor's defeat will send shock waves throughout Washington. The House majority leader was one of the best-known Republican figures in the country, reputed for his strategic acumen and political ambition. He wielded an immense amount of clout within the Capitol and was widely expected to one day seek to become the speaker of the House.

His primary was never expected to be seriously competitive, and his loss is catching everyone—from veterans of Virginia politics to longtime analysts in Washington—by surprise.

"Obviously, we came up short," Cantor said in a speech Tuesday night.

Cantor's loss was shocking, but there were several signs of rising voter discontent among conservatives in his district. Brat attacked him for supporting "amnesty" as part of his support for comprehensive immigration reform, which forced Cantor to reiterate that he opposed legislation that provided for "blanket amnesty."

The issue of immigration policy drew heightened attention on Fox News and conservative talk radio in the past week after news reports documented a surge of undocumented children arriving at the United States border, overrunning processing centers and the Border Patrol.

In an interview just last Friday, Cantor suggested he could work with President Obama to allow a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants already in the country. In the campaign's final days, Brat criticized Cantor for siding with Obama on the contentious issue.

A secondary factor in Cantor's demise was his disconnect from many Republican constituents in the district. The state's redistricting in 2010 made his suburban Richmond district more conservative, adding new areas that he didn't previously represent. As majority leader, Cantor spent less time wooing voters at town halls in Chesterfield County and more time deal-making with Republican leadership in Washington.

He didn't take the challenge from Brat seriously enough until it was too late. Between April 1 and May 21, he spent nearly $1 million trying to fend off Brat, but his campaign was still dismissive of the challenge even as recently as Monday when reporters questioned why it was spending so much money.

"We lived the exact same thing two years ago," said Ray Allen, Cantor's campaign manager, in an interview with the National Journal before Tuesday's primary. "From 2000 to 2012, we've run TV ads, done direct mail, yard signs."

Cantor won his primary with 79 percent of the vote last year, though he only won less than 60 percent of the vote in the last two general elections—in a Republican-friendly district.

Cantor's loss is also a major defeat for the faint hopes of passing immigration reform in the House. Brat's focus on Cantor's immigration record forced him to be defensive. Cantor sent mail ads touting his opposition to "amnesty for illegal immigrants" even while advocating for an exception for those brought to the country as children—a caveat Brat criticized.

Cantor also ran negative TV ads calling Brat a "liberal college professor" and criticizing him for serving on an advisory board for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine when Kaine was governor.

There isn't much historical precedent for a majority leader losing a primary. In 1994, Tom Foley became the first House speaker in more than a century to be defeated for reelection when he lost a general election during that year's Republican wave. His predecessor was Speaker Galusha Grow, a Republican who lost his seat during the Civil War. In the upper chamber, onetime Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is the only party leader in recent history to lose an election, in 2004.

The loss to leadership speaks to a broader defeat for the Republican establishment. "Those who thought the tea party had been absorbed just got a big wake up call," says Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. "It's alive and well and eating elite establishment Republicans for breakfast."

Both Brat and Democratic candidate Jack Trammell are professors at the same small school, Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. The school has fewer than 100 full-time faculty and a student population of just over 1,200.

Virginia law prohibits Cantor from running as an independent, but he can run as a write-in candidate, a strategy that worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010 after she lost the Alaska Republican primary.

And it's not like Cantor's sounding like he's now ready to just disappear.

"I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us," he said Tuesday night. "So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things that we believe in for the conservative cause, because those solutions of ours are the answer to the problems that so many people are facing today."