U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his re-election bid, falling to Tea Party challenger David Brat in a Virginia Republican primary in one of the biggest upsets in modern congressional history.
The upset marks a shift in momentum in the intraparty power struggle between the small-government movement and Republicans closely aligned with the business community. In addition to Cantor, the Tea Party is seen as having the advantage in a June 24 runoff primary election between Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel.
Cantor is the second-ranking House Republican and was considered the frontrunner to become the next House speaker. Tonight’s loss is a stunning fall for Cantor, 51, who was instrumental in the election of many of the Tea Party-backed candidates who handed Republicans their House majority in 2010.
Brat, a Tea Party activist who teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, had campaigned saying Cantor was part of the Washington establishment.
The seven-term House member from Richmond is the biggest Republican trophy the Tea Party has claimed since the movement began in 2010. Prior to tonight, the business coalition had beaten back almost all Tea Party challenges to incumbent House and Senate Republicans.
“It’s disappointing, sure, but I believe in this country. I believe there is opportunity around the next corner for all of us,” Cantor said tonight.
During an interview on Fox News tonight, Brat, 49, said he ran on Republican principles, though he faulted the party for “paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough attention to Main Street.”
“The Republican Party has been kind of taking it to the grassroots, and the grassroots is rightly upset,” said Brat, who’s married and has two children. “The only problem with the Republican principles is that no one’s following them.”
Brat, who received his doctorate in economics from American University in Washington, will face Democrat Jack Trammell, an associate professor at Randolph-Macon, in the November election.
Representative Steve Stockman, a Tea Party ally who was defeated in a Texas Republican primary, tweeted that Brat’s victory “should be a wake-up call to GOP leadership. No one is safe if they abandon principle.”
Brent Bozell, head of ForAmerica, a limited-government group specializing in social media, said in a statement: “Eric Cantor’s loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading an effort to protect incumbents who have taken votes upsetting to the Tea Party, including lifting the nation’s debt ceiling to avoid a national default. Cantor voted in favor of that, an act that Brat targeted for criticism.
The victory will provide momentum to the movement that has worked to block House votes on such issues as immigration and infrastructure funding, two priorities for the business community. Cantor came under attack for considering debate on rewriting the nation’s immigration laws.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Brat won with 55.5 percent of the vote compared with Cantor’s 44.5 percent.
“This rocks the Republican conference, for sure. Eric’s been a fantastic leader and a good friend. It’s a shocking, disappointing night,” said Representative Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican.
Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in Congress and one of its most dominant fundraisers, including on Wall Street. He raised more than $5.4 million for the 2014 campaign through May 21, compared with $207,000 for Brat, Federal Election Commission disclosure reports show.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, of California, would be next in line and likely to make a play for majority leader, according to a senior Republican lawmaker.
House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a favorite of the Club for Growth and other Tea Party-aligned groups has been expanding his political operation and might also seek Cantor’s post. Representative Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, is also considered a potential candidate for the post, the lawmaker said.