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Why Eric Cantor Lost

A stunning consequence of his brash brand of politics

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Because immigration reform played heavily near the end of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary campaign, and because a number of influential anti-amnesty conservative activists aligned to make an example of him—using the volatility of district-level primaries to their advantage—the media will treat his defeat as evidence that immigration policy is the third rail of Republican politics.

But as stunning as the upset is, immigration isn't really why Cantor lost, or even why conservatives were upset with him in the first place—though they will happily embrace that analysis if it'll scare other immigrant-friendly Republicans straight. To the contrary, evidence that immigration reform isn't actually a huge intra-GOP liability lies everywhere in plain sight. Senator Lindsey Graham—a famous conservative bête noire who co-authored, voted for, helped pass, and continues to support comprehensive immigration reform—won his primary handily. In South Carolina. The same night Cantor lost.

This isn't to say Republican primary voters shrug off immigration reform. They don't. And I don't doubt its potential, as an issue, to draw support away from other pro-reform Republicans.

But Cantor's unexpected defeat speaks to a much deeper activist disenchantment—one that isn't completely reflected in the GOP conference on Capitol Hill, where plenty of conservatives still consider themselves Cantor guys, and owe their seats in Congress to him. The great irony of this year's primary season, and indeed of conservative politics going back years now, is that the two Republican leaders most responsible for the party's insurgent-like opposition to the Obama agenda—Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are the base's most reviled. McConnell defeated his primary challenger last month, at great expense. Cantor fell short.

There's a kernel of truth to the idea that Cantor was a Frankenstein, devoured by his own creation. But it would be more accurate to say that by doing the right's bidding and thus drawing its energy and investment into the party, he created expectations that almost nobody serving at a high level of congressional leadership could meet. Without Cantor and McConnell, the Obama opposition strategy would have been much less organized, but by organizing it, they absorbed a disproportionate degree of the right's frustration when the strategy failed.

But Cantor was particularly ill-suited to managing the inherent tension.

Cantor practices a cunning, devious brand of politics. He played legislative strategy the same way he played intra-conference intrigue—devising too-clever-by-half schemes to seize momentary advantage, often at the expense of bigger picture goals. They frequently blew back at him. When Republicans took back the House, he advocated strategies that culminated in dangerous brinksmanship over funding the government and increasing the debt limit, exactly as conservatives demanded. But he also attempted to set the bizarre precedent of offsetting emergency spending for natural disaster relief with cuts to unrelated social spending programs. He never prevailed, but his position became extremely awkward when a rare and sizable earthquake severely damaged his own district in August 2011.

After Obama's re-election, Cantor had to reverse course and orchestrate ransomless debt limit increases, to the great dismay of Republican hardliners. He then pandered to those same hardliners in ways that frequently undermined John Boehner's best-laid plans. These priorities were incongruous, and suggestive of an effort to situate himself as the Speaker's heir apparent, rather than of a commitment to conservative causes.

Just two months ago, Cantor end ran around those same conservatives to secure passage of a bill protecting Medicare physicians from a substantial pay cut.

While negotiations were ongoing…Cantor, darted on to the House floor and, after brief consultation with Democratic leaders, cleared the Medicare "doc fix" by voice vote—a procedure that's typically reserved for fast tracking uncontroversial legislation. The yeahs and nays were not recorded. A bill that divided the GOP conference, and might very well have failed in front of God and everyone under the leadership's own rules, had passed the House before many Republicans even knew what Cantor was up to.

For more than a year now, Cantor's stable of influential operatives and former operatives have done battle with the purity obsessed hardliners and opportunists who tried to seize control of the party's legislative strategy. Many of them sought retribution by taking aim at Cantor in his district.

In the end the right's beef with him—as with McConnell—was about more than just affect. It was about his willingness to use power politics and procedural hijinks to cut conservatives out of the tangle when expedient. The lesson of his defeat isn't that immigration reform is particularly poisonous, but that the right expects its leaders to understand they can't subsume the movement's energy for tactical purposes, then grant it only selective influence over big decisions.

This post has been updated.