There are three key questions to ask and answer about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat Tuesday night. First, how did it happen and what does it mean? Second, what does it tell us about the policy agenda ahead for the remainder of this year? And third, what are the implications of Cantor’s defeat — the first primary defeat of a party leader ever — for the Republican Party?
On the first question, there will be dozens of answers. The new dominant narrative, of course, is that the Tea Party rose up, struck back, showed its muscle and has the party establishment on its heels. That replaces the previous narrative, that the establishment rose up, struck back, and has the Tea Party on its heels.
All this says more about narratives than it does about reality. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, a tiny proportion of voters in Cantor’s Virginia district actually voted — and of course, at the same time he was losing, establishment favorite Lindsey Graham, in the far more conservative state of South Carolina, was cruising to an impressive primary victory for his Senate seat.
Cantor did face a serious backlash from the radical forces he helped to engender in 2010; he was seen as too much a part of the crony capitalist establishment. He ran a lousy campaign, attacking his radical right opponent as a leftist fan of Democrats, flip-flopping on immigration reform and not spending his vast resources on a get-out-the-vote effort. He was highly visible as the only Jewish Republican in the House, in a district with a strong evangelical presence. And largely unnoticed until yesterday was the role of national talk show hosts and radical activists like Laura Ingraham and Brent Bozell, who went on their own jihad against Cantor.
But the reasons behind his defeat are less significant than the repercussions.
First, it is clear that this moves the Republican Party even further to the right, in approach, attitude and rhetoric. Even if the overwhelming majority of incumbents, including establishment ones, have won renomination, even if broader Republican public opinion is more establishment conservative than Tea Party radical, all it takes is an example or two of the opposite to get all politicians jumping at their shadows and muttering to themselves, “That could happen to me.”
Fans of immigration reform have been saying that Cantor would now free to push a reform plan. Please. He's not even staying as majority leader for the remainder of this Congress. There's no way his colleagues are going to embrace any immigration reform that even hints at a path to legalization.
Cantor had put out a policy plan for June that has a bunch of symbolic actions and a few real policy advances. Now, that plan will surely be curtailed further. Action means government doing things, and the zeitgeist of the GOP now is not to have government doing anything except self-destructing. Thank goodness there are no more votes this year on raising the debt ceiling or (God willing) shutting down the government.
American political parties always face a tension between their establishment and ideological wings. On the Republican side, going back more than a hundred years to the Teddy Roosevelt era, that was a struggle between moderate progressives and conservatives.
Now it is different. There are no moderates or progressives in today’s GOP; the fight is between hard-line conservatives who believe in smaller government and radical nihilists who want to blow up the whole thing, who have as much disdain for Republican traditional conservatives as they do for liberals.
In our 2012 book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Tom Mann and I described the Republican Party as an “insurgent outlier.” That is even more true today. The energy and driving force in the party, in its House membership, media dominance, caucus and primary electorates and financial backers, is not its conservative wing but its radical side.
They may not prevail over the long run. But they are celebrating today. The implications of Cantor’s defeat will not be lost on establishment conservatives — including those contemplating a presidential run.