As majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Eric Cantor is no stranger to protests. A pro-immigration amnesty group once stormed his northern Virginia condo building.
But protests by fellow Republicans are, well, rare. That changed this weekend when Cantor took the stage to address Tea Party unrest at the convention to elect the 7th congressional district’s Republican Committee chairman. He lost both the crowd and the vote.
Cantor loyalist and incumbent Linwood Cobb faced off against Tea Party challenger Fred Gruber. The meeting swelled to twice the usual size and had to be relocated from a high school gym to the Hilton ballroom.
Gruber supporters complained to the Tea Party News Network that the Cantor-Cobb faction snatched up all the conference rooms, forcing them to hold their rally in the Honey Baked Ham across the street.
In many ways, the fight was a proxy for the primary fight that’s set to take place in a month between Cantor and the unfortunately named Dave Brat, an econ prof for Randolph-Macon College. Both candidates addressed the convention and pleaded for activists to support their candidates and their own candidacies next month.
Brat went first. He accused Cantor of smearing him and asked why the congressman refuses to debate. When Cantor took the stage, he accused Brat of “inaccuracies” and of “throw[ing] stones” from his college “ivory tower” at “all of us who are working every day to make a difference,” reported the Washington Post.
The majority leader was taken aback by the Tea Party catcalls of “lies!” and “debate!” He yelled back: “Enough!” “My family’s here,” Cantor reminded them, and appealed for “decency.”
The complaints may have died down but when all the voting was done, Cantor lost. Gruber beat Cobb by a final vote of 685 to 636.
Tea Partiers are mad at Cantor over his votes for the Ryan-Murray budget, which busted sequester spending restraints, and for a whole host of other votes – most of which he had to cast to be in party leadership.
At press time, Brat didn’t respond to a Rare request for comment on either race. His website slams Cantor for Ryan-Murray, for voting to hike the debt ceiling, for sponsoring legislation that would extend amnesty to illegal immigrants, and for backing NSA snooping. He also accuses Cantor of voting to “fully fund Obamacare,” but Cantor has a point about inaccuracy on that one.
The Virginia district is solidly Republican, so whichever man emerges from the GOP primary on June 10 is going to Congress. Before this weekend, Brat’s challenge was one that few political handicappers took seriously, due to lack of good polling showing a Tea Party surge.
After the convention, several number crunchers I consulted in DC said they would still bet on Cantor to pull it out. But now it’s a real fight, and the congressman knows it. In the next month, expect him to spend whatever it takes to survive.