The stunning demise of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his congressional primary on Tuesday–by a huge margin–is a sign of how deeply the conservative base resents the Republican leadership’s efforts to frog-march the party towards immigration reform before securing the country’s borders.
The Tea Party’s death turns out to have been greatly exaggerated. Ironically, it was Cantor himself who breathed life into the movement in 2009.
In February of that year, as Republicans licked their wounds from Barack Obama’s historic victory the previous November, Cantor–then Minority Whip–marshaled a dejected and depleted House Republican caucus to vote a unanimous “no” against the Democrats’ $862 billion stimulus bill. That gesture electrified the Republican base, and set the stage for the Tea Party’s formal emergence weeks later, after Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant.
When the new Republican majority failed to provide the strong opposition that the Tea Party movement had hoped for, some conservatives looked to Cantor as a possible alternative to Speaker John Boehner when new elections were held in January 2013. Yet Cantor declined to lead a mutiny.
Instead, he helped Boehner and the House leadership push “comprehensive” immigration reform throughout 2013 and into the midterm election.
Those on the left who have long opposed Cantor, as well as the Tea Party, will try to spin his sudden downfall as the result of Republican drift towards the extreme right, or perhaps even as antisemitism.
The simple truth is that Cantor lost touch with his constituents and the electorate generally, for whom immigration is among the lowest priorities. He led–powerfully–until he failed to listen. It is a loss for the GOP, and–crucially–a lesson.