After the government shutdowns and standoffs of last year, the House had been enjoying a period of calm as Republican leaders sought to keep attention focused on the November midterm election. They are favored to hold their House majority and hope to gain control of the Senate.
Cantor's defeat brought turmoil, emboldening the anti-establishment tea party Republicans in the House who believe their GOP leaders, including Speaker
A resurgence of the no-compromise wing of the party likely ends prospects for
That division will play out immediately with a fight over the House GOP leadership. It is expected to pit Rep.
"It's time we had people in leadership positions who will reflect the values of regular Americans, and not the values of Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce and the special-interest groups that flood Washington."
Democrats were poised to exploit the uproar to portray Republicans as a damaged brand, overtaken by what they describe as tea party "extremists."
"The inmates are running the asylum of this Republican Congress," said a fundraising appeal from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which was typical of Democratic responses to Cantor's defeat. "If John Boehner already had a hard time controlling his caucus, it will only get worse."
Though that may be true, the immediate outcome of the election almost certainly will be to deepen gridlock on Capitol Hill. Immigration reform is the most prominent casualty.
Boehner and many other top party leaders think the GOP must broaden its base beyond conservative white voters heading toward the 2016 presidential election or risk defeat.
Legislative strategists had believed that Boehner had a window this summer in which he could bring some limited immigration measures to the House floor.
But as large groups of immigrants walked the Capitol grounds Wednesday, protesting stalled action in the House, that debate seemed far from the minds of rank-and-file GOP lawmakers.
Other House Republicans, many of whom already oppose immigration reform plans, now are likely to be too nervous about their own political futures to tackle the difficult issue.
As the prospects for legislative action fade, President
The impact of the election upset will probably go beyond immigration. In a news conference Wednesday, Cantor said he continued to believe in the need to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But at the grass roots, many Republican voters have said they believe their congressional leadership has gone too far to accommodate the president and Democrats in the Senate.
Many conservative Republicans were angry last fall when congressional leaders backed down from a fight over shutting down government agencies without winning any limits on Obama's healthcare law. A vote earlier this year to allow the
By reinforcing the message that Republican primary voters want lawmakers to compromise less, Cantor's defeat will make passage of basic bills to fund government agencies more difficult. Conservatives also could insist on another fight over the debt ceiling.
Cantor had backed legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, a priority for large companies, but one that many conservatives oppose. He had also supported efforts to forge a compromise that would restore some parts of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down last year.
Backers of both of those measures said his defeat endangered their efforts.
The ambitious Cantor, a seven-term Virginian and prolific party fundraiser, holed up in the Capitol most of the day. He had been so confident of victory Tuesday night that his Wednesday schedule included a kitchen cabinet strategy session with about two dozen favored lawmakers. It was canceled.
Only late Wednesday, after a hastily called closed-door meeting of Republicans that grew emotional at times, did Cantor emerge publicly for a post-election news conference in which he sought to play down divisions within GOP ranks.
"The differences we may have are slight, and pale in comparison to the differences we have with the left," he said.
That was the same message a teary-eyed Boehner delivered to his troops during the private session.
"This is the time for unity, the time for focus — focus on the thing we all know to be true," Boehner said. "The failure of Barack Obama's policies, and our obligation to show the American people we offer them not just a viable alternative, but a better future."