Why Cantor Lost

by Fred Bauer

In a stunning turn of events, conservative upstart Dave Brat has defeated House Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary for Virginia’s seventh congressional district. Immigration played a decisive role in this primary. The apparent willingness of some House Republicans to work with the White House to pass an immigration package that includes a mass legalization and expanded guest-worker programs has infuriated many moderates and conservatives, especially those who want to reinvigorate the electoral fortunes of the Republican party with a renewed focus on economic opportunity and middle-class uplift. Claiming that the House Republican leadership’s immigration “principles” constituted “amnesty,” Brat accused Cantor of supporting the White House’s immigration agenda, and it appears that Cantor was unable to fend off these charges.

From the start, Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, had an uphill climb, with some experts claiming that there was “no real precedent” for defeating a majority leader in a political primary. With a broad network and large campaign war chest, Cantor usually cruised to victory in the seventh district. In 2012, for example, he crushed his primary opponent, Floyd C. Bayne, by 79 to 21 percent.

Much of the Virginia Republican establishment lined up behind Cantor before the primary, and the majority leader had a massive financial advantage over Brat. He spent around $1 million dollars between April 1 and May 21, and, according to the latest FEC records, he had about $1.5 million on hand. By last Saturday, the Brat campaign said that it had raised nearly $300,000. To put that in perspective: the American Chemistry Council, one of Cantor’s major backers, alone spent over $300,000 on the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But that financial advantage did not translate into victory. In May and June, conservative media drew increasing attention to the Brat vs. Cantor race as a way of sending a message to Beltway Republicans thinking about signing on to the White House immigration agenda. Talk-radio host Laura Ingraham covered the race extensively and even led a rally for Brat on June 3. Other conservative pundits, including Mark Levin and Ann Coulter, also supported Brat. Perhaps one of Brat’s biggest media allies in the primary race was neo-liberal blogger Mickey Kaus, who blogged and indefatigably tweeted about the race.

Though Cantor tried to put some distance between himself and allies of the White House immigration agenda, he did not put enough.

In attacking Cantor and the White House on immigration, Brat emphasized the effects of the White House immigration agenda on average working Americans, saying that a vote for Cantor was “a vote for open borders and lower wages.” Though Brat focused on immigration, he was not an immigration-only candidate. He argued that Cantor departed from conservative principles on a number of issues. Brat criticized increasing centralization in education policy (such as Common Core), crony capitalism, and the skyrocketing national debt.

This upset could have significant implications for the House’s potential future consideration of large immigration bills. In defeating Cantor, Brat made a case for an approach to immigration that reflects respect for the rule of law, support for legal immigration, and a defense of economic opportunity. Cantor’s loss tonight might cause some House Republicans to reconsider any plans to advance an immigration-reform measure that could harm wages, increase economic divisions, and lead to further illegal immigration.

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