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The GOP Just Got a Wake-Up Call

Eric Cantor's loss proves the Tea Party refuses to rest in peace

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It’s going to take a while to figure out precisely what happened Tuesday night in Virginia’s 7th House District. Nobody thought Eric Cantor, the second most powerful Republican in the House, would lose his primary campaign to Dave Brat, an anonymous college professor too busy grading exams to attend campaign events. Not too many people even thought it’d be close. Robert Costa of the Washington Post wrote about Brat's surprising popularity a month ago, but the rest of the political press barely noticed.

The obvious explanation for Cantor’s defeat is immigration. And in this case, the obvious explanation is probably right. Brat hammered Cantor for his supposed support of “amnesty.” Cantor swore the charge was untrue and, lord knows, he wasn't doing anything to advance the cause of immigration reform publicly. It appears the voters didn’t believe him. 

But the Virginians who rejected Cantor may have been rejecting more than his position on immigration. Brat’s campaign portrayed Cantor as a creature of Washington and an ally of special interests, particularly those representing the financial industry. "Another power-hungry Washington insider" is how one advertisement described him.

There's one good reason to think those charges had an impact. The charges happen to be true.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cantor drew more campaign donations from the securities and investment industry this cycle than from any other sector. The top three companies responsible for donations (via individual employees or through political action committees) were the Blackstone Group, Scoggin Capital Management, and Goldman Sachs. Cantor talked about standing up for the little guy, but if he ever took a vote that challenged the rich and powerful, it's news to me.

Top 5 contributors to Cantor campaign

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Brat also attacked Cantor for his supposed cooperation with, and enabling of, Obama. This charge may seem strange to the White House and, for that matter, most sentient beings. Few Republicans have spent more energy fighting Obama and the Democrats. And Cantor played a pivotal role in killing the grand bargain that Obama was trying to negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner in 2011. (Read Jason Zengerle’s masterful account of that episode in the profile he wrote for New York magazine.) But it's true that, during 2011 and then in future confrontations with the Democrats, Cantor ultimately fell in line with Republican leadership. He agreed to raise the debt ceiling and to keep the government running, even though Democrats would not go along with Tea Party demands for Obamacare repeal or massive budget cuts.

Those decisions should have been defensible, even among extreme conservatives, as necessary and in the public interest. Particularly in 2013, less than one year after Obama's resounding win over Mitt Romney, the Republicans had no reasonable or poitically sustainable grounds for making such demands. There was even some evidence that the right wing understood this. Following the shutdown debacle, it appeared that just maybe the Republican establishment was reasserting itself—an impression that recent Tea Party defeats seemed to cement. 

It's easy to over-interpret the results of one election, particularly when the results are so fresh. Other establishment candidates, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and other members shunned by the Tea Party, like Senator Lindsey Graham, have done just fine this cycle. There's also the fact that Cantor was singularly unlikable, even by Washington standards. So take everything you read in the next 24 hours—including this item—as the speculation that it is. But Cantor’s loss sure looks like a reminder that the GOP establishment may not have so much control after all. If so, it seems only fitting that Cantor, who repeatedly stoked Tea Party frustrations in order to undermine Boehner, would himself fall to a Tea Party challenger.

As my colleague Danny Vinik points out, this probably isn’t good news for the Republican Party’s political prospects in national elections, given how out of sync the Tea Party is with the rest of the country. But the 2016 election is still a long way off. In the interim, the country needs a government that can actually function, which means it needs an opposition party that can bring itself to compromise once in a while. With Cantor's loss, the Republican Party seems even lessl likely to fulfill that role. 

Note: This item has been updated.