House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and his wife, Diana, leave the stage after his concession speech in Richmond, Va., June 10, 2014.
Steve Helber/AP

An unlikely primary target, an even less likely primary loser

One of the most striking primaries in recent memory was Bob Inglis’ race in 2010. The conservative South Carolinian was crushed in a GOP primary, losing by a ridiculous 42-point margin in a district he’d represented for more than a decade.
 
And yet, the results made a certain amount of sense. Inglis had expressed a willingness to work with Democrats on energy policy; he’d urged his constituents not to take Glenn Beck too seriously; and he said his main focus as a lawmaker was to find constructive “solutions” to problems, including climate change. When right-wing voters turned on him, there was no great mystery as to why.
 
Likewise, when Mike Castle lost his 2010 primary in Delaware, we could chalk it up to his moderation. When Dick Lugar lost his 2012 primary in Indiana, we could look at his willingness to work in a bipartisan way.
 
As Simon Maloy noted, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is “basically everything Republicans could ask for in a majority leader – conservative, obstructionist, deferential to the tea party – and he still got booted out.”

In January 2009, when President Obama debuted his stimulus package to prevent the cratering economy from collapsing entirely, Cantor announced that not a single Republican would vote for it, telling his staff that it was key that the White House not get any GOP defectors and thus claim a bipartisan label for the legislation. He succeeded, and Cantor and the rest of the Republicans have been complaining about the stimulus Obama “rammed through Congress” ever since.

In the interminable fights over raising the debt ceiling, Cantor was one of the key negotiators and used his clout to stand up for Republican interests – chiefly, opposition to any sort of tax increases as part of a compromise package. Ryan Lizza’s profile of Cantor from last March makes clear that Cantor, more than anyone, was responsible for the hardline conservative obstructionism in the House: “For the past two years, he has anchored the Tea Party, as the leader of House conservatives and the creator of a strategy to oppose and obstruct the Obama agenda.”

Reading the New York Times this morning, I nearly choked on my breakfast seeing this headline: “Cantor’s Loss a Bad Omen for Moderates.” Reasonable people can debate whether or not there are any genuine moderate Republicans left in Washington – I would argue there are not – but to even put the word in the same sentence as Cantor is pretty silly. He has a 95% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, for goodness’ sake.
 
His unyielding partisanship and love of obstructionism, his refusal to compromise, and his disinterest in governing solutions may not have been enough to make primary voters in central Virginia happy, but that doesn’t mean Cantor was a moderate ripe for the picking.
 
This may lead some to assume that David Brat’s focus on immigration was effective, but this doesn’t quite ring true, either, at least not completely. For one thing, Cantor was instrumental in killing immigration reform, not advancing it. For another, plenty of other conservative Republicans – including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), just yesterday – actually supported reform and survived primary challenges easily.
 
So if Cantor was extremely conservative, and immigration didn’t end his career, what did? Brian Beutler’s analysis rings true.
…There’s a kernel of truth to the idea that Cantor was a Frankenstein, devoured by his own creation. But it would be more accurate to say that by doing the right’s bidding and thus drawing its energy and investment into the party, he created expectations that almost nobody serving at a high level of congressional leadership could meet. Without Cantor and McConnell, the Obama opposition strategy would have been much less organized, but by organizing it, they absorbed a disproportionate degree of the right’s frustration when the strategy failed.
 
But Cantor was particularly ill-suited to manage the inherent tension.
If the Virginia Republican had paid a little closer attention to his district, had a slightly more coherent defense for his record, and had shown a little less re-election hubris, he might have overcome all of this. But that’s not what happened.
 
To see Cantor’s embarrassing primary defeat as another setback for mainstream Republicans, however, punished for relative moderation in the face of extremism, is to misunderstand the actual circumstances.
 

Eric Cantor and Virginia

An unlikely primary target, an even less likely primary loser