Earthquake: The Cantor Story that Caught the Political World by Surprise

At a $2500-a-head fundraiser in D.C. Tuesday morning, Majority Leader Eric Cantor appeared to be in an upbeat, happy-go-lucky mood — like he had just seen polling data that assured his victory, a person at the event said. In the Capitol, his press aides did not seem the least bit perturbed. Virginia political guru Larry Sabato's political newsletter said the question was whether he would get 60 percent. Even Breitbart – one of the only publications to cover the race seriously – downplayed primary challenger David Brat's chances of victory.

But as the results began to stream in, the entire political world watched with utter shock: the sitting Majority Leader was being deposed by a political novice economics professor with no money.

In an election cycle about the Establishment striking back, one of the most shocking electoral upsets in modern history happened while the the political world was yawning.

The story about how David Brat pulled off such a monumental surprise win starts, and almost ends, with immigration. Throughout the campaign, Brat was relentless in his attacks on Cantor over the issue. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of illegal alien children were streaming across the border, creating a border security crisis.

Cantor was ham-handed in his handling of the issue. He quietly backed an effort to pass the “ENLIST Act,” which would grant amnesty to “DREAMers” who enlist in the military, then turned sharply and took credit for blocking it from a floor vote. He issued campaign literature touting himself as an anti-amnesty warrior, then took to a radio interview to call the principles of the DREAM Act “biblical.”

Meanwhile, Brat took every opportunity to drive the issue home, even engaging in wild hyperbole towards the end of the campaign. (He said no member of Congress had done more to enact amnesty than Cantor, for example, leaving behind immigration stalwarts like Chuck Schumer.)

Cantor's attack ads on Brat also seemed to land with a thud. They accused Brat of working with Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine to raise taxes because Kaine had appointed him to a board of economic advisers. But the board, it turned out, was a macroeconomic forecasting panel – not something that had anything to do with policy.

Perhaps the most staggering fact about the upset is that Cantor did not, even remotely, take the race for granted. He spent millions and campaigned hard. Many of the incumbents who have lost their seats didn't realize the threat was coming until it was there. Cantor seemed to know what he was facing, just not how to handle it.

The Brat victory leaves a giant vacuum in House leadership, something that will be resolved over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, the premature obituaries of the Tea Party's political prowess are as dead as Eric Cantor's political career.


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