WASHINGTON — The jarring defeat of House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary ripped through Congress on Wednesday, driving members to question whether the Virginia congressman was an isolated case or a broad warning sign likely to doom even slim chances of changes in such hot-button issues as immigration or voting rights.
Some said Cantor invited the stunning upset by losing touch with his district, opening the door to the successful challenge by tea party-powered political novice David Brat. Others said Cantor did it by inviting compromise with Democrats on immigration revisions, anathema to tea party activists.
Either way, it was likely to have a chilling effect on lawmakers worried about elections this year and a House already prone to gridlock.
“I think it’s made everything much more uncertain,” said former Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who was the first Congress member defeated by the tea party in 2010.
That doesn’t bode well for significant action in a Congress that already struggles with passing what used to be routine measures to pay its bills, let alone controversial measures.
“Every politician’s immediate concern is their election, and they’re trying to figure out how Cantor’s defeat impacts them,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “This calibration distracts from legislation and contributes to inertia in Congress. I’m afraid that even less will get done.”
Put overhauling the nation’s immigration laws at the top of the list.
More than anything, Cantor was probably a casualty of immigration. As he considered Obama administration and Senate proposals to revamp immigration laws, Cantor advocated a limited legalization path for those brought into the United States as children.
That allowed Brat to hammer him as a flip-flopper soft on illegal immigration, an approach that resonated in a redrawn Virginia congressional district that’s grown more conservative.
Prospects for Congress passing new immigration measures were bleak before Cantor’s defeat. Now the chances of lawmakers dealing with it this year are nil.
“It was always going to be a tough mountain to climb,” said Bill Dal Col, an immigration-overhaul supporter and Republican strategist who managed billionaire Steve Forbes’ presidential campaigns in 1996 and 2000. “It just got tougher. I think this may make it a harder sell for those on the fence.”
Hamilton agreed, saying “certainly this sets back immigration in a big way.”
Immigration overhaul supporters said Cantor’s ouster was his own fault for not taking a definitive position on the issue. They noted that conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports a comprehensive immigration overhaul, handily won his primary Tuesday.
“Eric Cantor’s loss is about local politics more than immigration,” said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group. “At the same time, he tried to play both sides of the immigration debate, and he got burned.”
Some lawmakers and analysts say immigration wasn’t the sole reason for Cantor’s demise. Bennett said Cantor had become estranged from the area he was elected to serve.
“I talked to some people in town who said Cantor was moving away from the district almost to the point of being contemptuous,” Bennett said. “This is a traditional case of ignoring his district, ignoring that all politics is local.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who’s trying to usher immigration legislation through Congress, went to the Senate floor Wednesday and said talk of Cantor losing because of the immigration issue was a false narrative.
“First, Eric Cantor was never the solution on immigration; he was always the problem,” Schumer said. “Cantor was the choke point for immigration reform for these past few months. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Cantor’s loss makes it easier, not harder, for the House leadership to pass immigration reform.”
Either way, Cantor’s defeat may ripple beyond immigration.
He was one of a handful of conservative Republicans, along with House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who were trying to get the party to seriously re-examine poverty issues during the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty.
He also advocated repairing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court weakened it last year by striking down key provisions of the landmark civil rights legislation. As with immigration, a bill to fix the act is stuck in the House and Senate and apparently going nowhere fast.
“It’s hard to imagine how the House could even get less done, but Cantor’s loss definitely puts a damper on getting anything done on voting rights and immigration,” said Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor who specializes in politics. “This will make it tougher. It will sharpen the differences between the two parties.”
Cantor’s loss is likely to embolden tea party members in the House, who often found themselves at odds with Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Several tea party lawmakers in the House bristled over deals the House Republican leadership reached with the Obama administration to end a partial government shutdown last October and to increase the nation’s debt ceiling in February.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told the publication CQ that Cantor’s defeat might weaken Boehner’s hold on the speaker’s gavel.
“Eric Cantor is gone because the tea party is not dead,” Huelskamp told CQ.
That forecast worries more moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Peter King of New York.
“My concern is that a lot of things are going to be dead and pushed to the side,” King said Wednesday on MSNBC. “I’m concerned that, for instance, the Ted Cruz supporters, the Rand Paul supporters are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning. I mean, thank God there is no debt-ceiling vote coming up.”