Just when you thought the tea party was in decline, it rears up and topples another icon.
Eric Cantor, the House majority leader and understudy to Speaker John A. Boehner, lost the primary election in his central Virginia district by a convincing margin, 56% to 44%. He had been a member of the House since 2001 and was running for his eighth term.
The winner was David Brat, a little-known college professor who accused Cantor of being insufficiently conservative -- especially, soft on immigration. Cantor had tried to steer a middle path on immigration issues, opposing the broad immigration reform bill the Senate passed last year but championing a Republican version of the Dream Act that would enable some undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children to qualify for in-state college tuition rates. Brat and others condemned that as “amnesty.”
The result stunned Washington, where Cantor was viewed as a wily power-broker and a future speaker of the House. On Tuesday morning, the Washington Post had forecast: “The question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be. If he wins by more than 20 points, it will likely quell rumblings about his popularity back home.”
“This is an earthquake,” former Republican Rep. Vin Weber told the Washington Post on Tuesday evening.
And Brat never came close to Cantor in fundraising; he raised only about $200,000, compared with Cantor’s $2 million. That didn’t matter.
The tea party insurgency is still there; ignore it at your peril. Cantor was guilty of neglecting his district in favor of national politicking.
The issue of immigration reform stokes high passions on both sides; regrettably, there seems to be no middle anymore.
And in a low-turnout primary election, a little bit of grass-roots organizing goes a long way -- and a scrappy challenger can still shock the national establishment. Brat’s thumping majority came in a GOP primary in which only about 65,000 voters showed up for both candidates combined. Cantor won 223,000 votes in his last general election in 2012; he managed to persuade fewer than 13% of those voters, about 28,000, to turn out for him Tuesday.
California note: Next in line to Cantor as majority leader is Kevin McCarthy, the Republican whip, who represents Bakersfield. Luckily for McCarthy, he won his Republican primary last week -- unopposed.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter: @DoyleMcManus