Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary in a huge upset last night for one reason and one reason only:
Yes, Cantor was the face of the Republican establishment thus making him a prime target. But so is Mitch McConnell, who, for all his faults, actively tried to to satisfy the conservative base and make friends with more popular Republican leaders.
Cantor ignored the conservative grassroots. His constituents complained they never saw him. Instead of working with the tea party and libertarian members of his party, as McConnell tried to, Cantor denounced them and fought with them.
Yes, Cantor’s advocacy for immigration reform might have (or might not have) played a significant role in his defeat, but it is just one part of a larger narrative in which the old Republican guard continues to be out of touch with a changing GOP. Tea party Republicans Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amash have talked about immigration reform too, but they remain popular with the grassroots. It’s what you mean by “immigration reform” that matters.
It’s how you talk to your own party that matters.
The Republican nominee for Virginia’s 7th congressional district, the libertarian-leaning Dave Brat, ran on a platform opposing Cantor’s version of immigration reform, crony capitalism, NSA metadata collection and the indefinite detention of American citizens, to name just a few issues.
On each, the tea party stood with Brat and on the opposite side of Cantor. With Brat only spending about $120,000 and Cantor spending over $5.4 million, the conservative grassroots still won.
And the establishment lost. Huge.
In his predictions for the 2014 elections, Karl Rove wrote at the Wall Street Journal in December, “Every Republican senator and virtually every representative challenged in a primary as insufficiently conservative will win.”
Last night, the Republican House Majority Leader lost in a pretty dramatic fashion because he was seen as insufficiently conservative.
In the past Republican leaders have found that loyalty to Republican presidents, as Cantor was to Bush, or opposition to Democratic presidents, as Cantor did often with Obama, was enough to satisfy their base.
But mere partisanship won’t cut it anymore. The GOP base is becoming more substantively conservative than it was a decade ago thanks in large part to a tea party movement, that for all its faults, is as fed up with the Republican status quo as much as they are the Democrats. This is something many Republicans still working off of a 2000-08 playbook will continue to learn, possibly the hard way.
Remember, “Bush’s brain” Karl Rove thought Mitt Romney was going to win too.
Last night the conservative grassroots took down the House Majority Leader. They couldn’t have asked for a bigger scalp than John Boehner’s right hand man. Those who say that the tea party is dead really have no idea what they’re talking about.
The conservative base does have a voice and it intends to use it, this year, in 2016 and beyond.
And Republican leaders had better start listening.