Kaddish for Cantor?

by John Lawrence

One can only imagine the guffaws and fist bumps pervading Speaker John Boehner’s office tonight with the report that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was taken out in Virginia’s Republican primary by a Tea Party hardliner named … please … David Brat. It looks like this David has truly laid low the Goliath of the House GOP, and Mr. Cantor is the one singing Kaddish.

That there is no love lost between Cantor and the House Speaker is not an especially well-kept secret. What makes tonight’s upset defeat delightfully ironic is that Cantor, who has spent the last three and a half years whipping up right wing dissatisfaction against Boehner’s alleged moderation, is himself the victim of accusations of collaboration.  In the past, I have directly heard quiet comments from those in Boehnerland whenever Cantor’s bravado and snarky style got him into trouble. Tonight, I imagine, the atmosphere in the Speaker’s Office is unadulterated glee.

It seems there are several explanations for Cantor’s collapse, most especially the widely reported suggestions that he might be willing to entertain some compromise with the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill that provides, under rigorous conditions, a potential path to citizenship. For months, I have told my classes at the University of California campus here in Washington that there was no chance House Republicans would consider action on the Senate bill until after the primaries were concluded. It was obvious that any Republican incumbent who even remotely suggested a path to anything but deportation was inviting a primary challenge. If the Senate bill was to be considered, surely it would only be after the opportunity for hardline Tea Partiers to file against vacillating incumbents had passed; and even then, I have been skeptical given the ability of grassroots Tea Party activists to launch write-in movements. Cantor’s defeat makes it clear that House Republicans will not only never agree to a compromise, but will not even take up immigration this year except, perhaps, to pass a hair-raising anti-immigrant bill.

The certain abandonment of immigration reform by Speaker Boehner (unless he is thinking about an early retirement himself) has profound implications for 2016 and perhaps even for some districts in 2014. It is extremely unlikely now that the GOP will include anything but a Tea Party-friendly immigration plank in their 2016 platform, and prospective nominees will have to hone a very anti-Latino line to be anywhere near the Convention when the platform is adopted. The impact is to further alienate the Latino vote, and especially the younger Latino vote, which might have been approachable had the GOP accepted Speaker Boehner’s immigration proposal a few months back. Boehner withdrew the plan within two days after harsh reactions.

There will be plenty of analysis of Cantor’s defeat over the next few days, but I will speculate that Mr. Brat owes some thanks to Gov. Terry McAuliffe. By raising the prospect of expanding Medicaid through Executive action rather than allow the Republican Senate to kill it, I suspect that McAuliffe helped flare up the Tea Party electorate who were looking for someone to get angry with, and they found Eric Cantor.

If there is a serious silver lining in Cantor’s defeat, it is that money does not always determine the outcome of elections. Brat reportedly spent about $200,000, although that doubtless was supplemented by lots of independent expenditures that targeted Cantor, like the PAC formed by Brat’s former strategist. Still, Cantor had more than $5 million that couldn’t defy a grassroots uprising. Somewhere, campaign reform activists must be smiling, although grimly.

Maybe Cantor will figure out a way to reappear on the November ballot and fight for his seat, but for the moment, it is satisfying to think about how entertaining Congressman Brat will be come next January. He may have a PhD (in economics, like former Majority Leader Dick Armey), but he has a lot to learn about how Washington works. He was, for example, recently quoted as speculating that a House Member would have to pay $150,000 to secure a seat on the House Ethics Committee, perhaps the most undesirable appointment one can receive!   I suspect there are many time more Members who would pay $150,000 not to be on Ethics than pay a dime for the honor.

For Boehner, the short-term satisfaction of ridding himself of the backstabbing Cantor is not likely to last long. Cantor’s loss is a further illustration of the volatility of the Republican grassroots and the uncontrollability of the GOP House Conference, all bad news for a Speaker who, at the unveiling of Rep. George Miller’s portrait last month, mused about their days as chairman of the Education Committee, when people who disagreed still were able to legislate on a bipartisan basis. Instead of trending back towards that nostalgic professionalism, the signs tonight point to his facing, at the beginning of the 114th Congress, an aptly named Brat Pack of hardline conservatives for whom inaction and gridlock are certain signs of strategic success.