Cantor bad, Brat worst
Commentators had already begun to talk somewhat prematurely of the US Tea Party as a force in decline, past its moment of critical influence. In the primaries this year it had failed to make any dramatic breakthough – House speaker John Boehner had comfortably won his primary, and in the Senate notable targets such as minority leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham had easily dispatched challenges.
But Tuesday’s shock defeat (56-44 per cent) of House minority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia has put the cat among the pigeons. His rival David Brat, with a campaign chest of only $200,000 to Cantor’s $5.4 million, has easily taken the Tea Party’s first big decisive win of the 2014 election cycle – quite a feat, it is extremely rare for a member of the congressional leadership to lose a primary.
The vote is likely to reverberate through the Republican Party in the House, where Cantor was seen as an important broker between the Tea Party radicals and the mainstream leadership and was being suggested as a successor to Boehner, and nationally where it will embolden the radicals determined to fight the next presidential election on the sort of policies the moderates in the party establishment believe suicidal.
In the immediate term the most likely effect will be to scupper prospects of immigration reform for President Obama who had won tentative support from Republican moderates for a bill which provided a path to citizenship for at least some of the country’s 11 million undocumented. Cantor was seen as a crucial figure in getting a House vote agreed on the issue ahead of November’s mid-term elections – he foundered in the leafy suburbs of Richmond where only some 5 per cent of voters are foreign-born.
Brat’s victory is causing some glee in Democratic circles, though not so much perhap in staunchly Republican Virginia. But if repeated manifestations of Republican extremism see other mainstream Republican candidates displaced, 2016’s presidential and congrssional elections will begin to look distintly appealing.