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Tea party cuts down its onetime champion, Eric Cantor

Eric Cantor betrayed the tea party revolution by being too cozy with big business

Revolutions often consume their own. One by one, from Danton to Robespierre, French revolutionaries sent their leaders to the guillotine. Now, the tea party movement has dropped the blade on Eric Cantor.

Cantor was one of the early champions of the tea party faction in the House Republican caucus. When he rose to become majority leader, this made relations with House Speaker John A. Boehner a bit edgy. In time, though, the two men learned to get along, and getting along -- with the president, with Democrats, even with other Republicans -- is a sign of betrayal among tea party militants.

Thus, on Tuesday, Cantor was taken down by an upstart challenger named Dave Brat who, in the low-turnout Virginia primary, won with the votes of anti-establishment conservatives.

The instant analysis attributed Cantor’s loss to his less-than-absolutist stance on illegal immigration. Cantor was willing to say there might be a place in American society for the children of undocumented immigrants. But deeper scrutiny shows that the immigration issue was just part of Brat’s broader attack against Cantor’s coziness with lobbyists and big business -- in particular the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, Brat says, wants illegal immigrants to flood the country as cheap labor.

Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, is a states-rights fan and critic of big government, but also an antagonist of big business and Wall Street. This populist impulse is an aspect of the tea party movement that is often overlooked, yet may be the sharpest line of division between many tea party militants and the GOP establishment.

Republicans have always been the party of business and, while giving lip service to the needs of the middle class, GOP leaders in Congress expend most of their energy defending the interests of big corporations and the financial industry from which they derive hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Dave Brat and tea party insurgents took notice that Cantor, one of the House GOP’s most prolific special-interest fundraisers, was quite comfortable with the corporate crowd. So they showed up to vote in the primary in disproportionate numbers and purged Cantor from their ranks. 

Despite this, it would obviously be inaccurate to think of the tea party as a conservative version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. (One big difference: Tea party folks understand the power of voting; the Occupy crowd does not.) Those who claim to be part of the tea party team more conspicuously rail against taxation, gun control, environmental regulations, Obamacare and all the usual conservative hot-button issues. “Tea party” is an amorphous title used by a wide swath of activists on the right, from Rand Paul libertarians to an Oklahoma legislative candidate, Scott Esk, who believes that it is God’s will that all gay people be stoned to death.

The religious right seems to have been absorbed into the broader tea party revolution. On primary-election night, Brat quoted Scripture and told his giddy supporters that their surprise victory was a “miracle from God.” That sense of being part of the Lord’s army makes uncompromising tea party activists even less inclined to compromise and makes conservative leaders such as Eric Cantor, who learned that compromise is part of governing, look like traitors to the cause.

Perhaps the easiest definition of “tea party” is “Republicans voters who vote in primaries.” And that means trouble for Republican leaders who now live in the shadow of a metaphorical guillotine. Poor Eric Cantor failed to see the blade coming.

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