Senior US Republican Eric Cantor tastes defeat at hands of Tea Party challenger

House majority leader defeated by economics professor in congressional primary

Eric Cantor: congressional primary loss has emboldened the Republican right and enabled Democrats to accuse the rival party of being in such disarray it cannot even guarantee the re-election of one of its leaders. Photograph: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Eric Cantor: congressional primary loss has emboldened the Republican right and enabled Democrats to accuse the rival party of being in such disarray it cannot even guarantee the re-election of one of its leaders. Photograph: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 01:00

The shock waves from the defeat of the second highest-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives in a primary election will be felt far beyond the US political epicentre in Washington.

The victory of a little-known outsider, economics professor Dave Brat, over House majority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s seventh congressional district will reverberate in election races across the country as Republicans pick candidates in primaries to challenge Democrats in the November midterm elections. It will be felt, too, in the lobbying efforts of the Irish Government.

Only weeks after the hard-right conservative Tea Party faction of the Republicans had been written off as party members plumped for establishment candidates in the Republican strongholds of Kentucky, Idaho and Texas, Brat emerged victorious.

The Tea Party member had been well beaten by Cantor in the campaign fundraising stakes and attack-advert battles. But the outspending mattered little as Brat mobilised Republicans on an anti-immigration reform campaign against Cantor, one of the figures responsible for the party taking control of the House in 2010 in a wave of anti-Obama sentiment.

Path to citizenship

Cantor’s defeat stemmed from his support of a proposal to put children who were brought illegally to the US on a path to citizenship. In a poorly funded campaign, Brat claimed that Cantor wanted to “bring more folks into the country, increase the labour supply – and, by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person”.

Cantor countered with a direct mail campaign, in which he noted that he led the fight against an “amnesty” proposal – last year’s immigration Bill, which would put almost 12 million illegal immigrants, including an estimated 50,000 Irish, on the road to citizenship, but which stalled in the Republican-controlled House where Cantor is second-in-command to speaker John Boehner.

This was not enough. Brat cruised to victory with a 56 per cent to 44 per cent margin, knocking out a prominent Republican who was seeking a seventh term in Congress and was tipped as Boehner’s successor as speaker. It was a stunning election upset for a congressional leader to lose in a primary.

It also proved that rumours of the Tea Party’s demise were exaggerated. Hardline conservatives jumped on Brat’s win.

L Brent Bozell, chairman of ForAmerica, a conservative group critical of Cantor, described the House majority leader’s loss as “an apocalyptic moment” for the Republican establishment. “The grassroots is in revolt and marching,” he said.

Brat’s win on a prominent anti-immigration reform stance will rule out the possibility of any immigration legislation passing, at least this year.

No Republican candidate seeking re-election to Congress this November, even those facing a long-shot conservative challenger, is going to touch the immigration nettle after Cantor’s stinging defeat.

Slim hope

There had been a slim hope among immigration reform advocates that a Bill might pass once Republicans had seen off conservative challengers in their primary elections this summer and before they went into battle with Democrats in the November elections.

Cantor’s loss has emboldened the Republican right and enabled Democrats to accuse the rival party of being in such disarray it cannot even guarantee the re-election of one of its leaders.

This all comes a week before Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore lands in Washington to lead the latest Government lobbying efforts on behalf of the so-called undocumented Irish. He is scheduled to meet Republican congressman Mick Mulvaney and Mark Amodei, who have strong Tea Party leanings, and Mario Díaz-Balart, who has tried for years to push his party into taking on the immigration issue.

If there is any solace in Cantor’s loss for Irish immigration lobbyists, it is that Republican chief whip Kevin McCarthy is the favourite to replace Cantor as majority leader. McCarthy has an open-door policy for the Irish on Capitol Hill, though his view of comprehensive immigration reform is likely to have cooled following his ally’s defeat.