Just a few miles from his family home, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) felt the wrath of the tea party Saturday, when activists in his congressional district booed and heckled the second-most powerful House Republican. They also elected one of their own to lead Virginia's 7th Congressional District Republican Committee, turning their back on Cantor's choice for a post viewed as crucial by both tea party and establishment wings in determining control of the fractured state GOP.
Virginia Republicans had high hopes going into last year's statewide elections, which were dashed when voters went to the polls. When the dust cleared, Democrats had won the commonwealth's race for governor, lieutenant governor and state attorney general for the first time since the 1980s. It's the first time in four decades that Dems have all three seats, in addition to both of the state's U.S. Senate seats.
How many other Southern states have this makeup? Zero. Clearly, Virginia Republicans were going to have to shift gears a bit to broaden the party's appeal.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), a center-right gubernatorial candidate who left the race last year, convinced he simply couldn't curry favor with the extremist elements in his party, seems to appreciate the scope of the problem.
"Clearly, there is a battle taking place for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," Bolling said in a statement. "While the voice of every Republican should be heard, our challenge is to figure out how to be a conservative party, without allowing the most extreme voices of the day to control our party and determine its future direction."
In other words, Virginia is quickly becoming a microcosm of the national landscape -- Democrats are well positioned for larger elections that include diverse populations; Republicans are well positioned to win legislative seats when district lines are drawn in their favor; and intra-GOP factions are likely to keep this dynamic in place for a while.
In this case, the issue at hand was fairly minor. As the Washington Post's report explained, Virginia Republicans had gathered to elect a district chair -- an "internal party post, responsible for rallying activists and volunteers at election time" with the power "to influence state party decisions such as whether to hold primaries or conventions to choose party nominees."
To that end, Cantor, who attended the gathering with his family, came to rally support for his longtime ally, Linwood Cobb, who was the incumbent for this post.
But when the House Majority Leader addressed the crowd, he was interrupted by far-right critics. Cantor's candidate was then rejected, with Tea Partier Fred Gruber getting the gig instead.
So much for changing direction.
For context, note that Cantor hasn't faced a tough campaign challenge in his home district in a while, but he's facing one this year, with David Brat, an economist at Randolph-Macon College, arguing that Cantor isn't right-wing enough. The Majority Leader is heavily favored to keep his seat, but Cantor is concerned enough about the primary challenge to air a local television ad attacking Brat.
If the incumbent weren't at least a little worried, Cantor wouldn't have bothered with the ad.