Eric Cantor's loss highlights GOP divisions, suggests more gridlock

Eric Cantor's loss highlights GOP divisions, suggests more gridlock
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announces that he’ll resign his leadership post at the end of July after losing a GOP primary election to political novice Dave Brat. (Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency)

House Republicans were in disarray Wednesday after the shocking defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a tea party novice brought the party's divisions back to the spotlight and further complicated an already difficult path for legislation.

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 John A. Boehner of Ohio, have been too willing to compromise with Democrats and too solicitous of the interests of big business.

A resurgence of the no-compromise wing of the party likely ends prospects for immigration legislation this year, as well as several other less prominent bills. It also reopens the possibility of another government shutdown this fall.

That division will play out immediately with a fight over the House GOP leadership. It is expected to pit Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, against a more conservative candidate, most likely from the large and heavily Republican Texas delegation.

"Congress currently has a 10% approval rating, [and] the reason we have a low approval rating is because members of Congress of both parties have lost touch with ordinary Americans," said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a hero of the tea party right.

"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."

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest weighed in with a political analysis: Cantor's defeat "does provide some evidence to indicate that the strategy of opposing nearly everything and supporting hardly anything is not just a bad governing strategy, it is not a very good political strategy either," he said.

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.

Cantor's opponent, Dave Brat, an economics professor at a local college, had attacked him for being open to "amnesty" for at least some immigrants in the country illegally. Cantor had backed, but failed to deliver, a plan to provide citizenship for some immigrant children who had been brought to the country by their parents illegally.

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 Obama may move toward executive action to further limit deportations of immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. Last month, Obama pushed off consideration of such a move to give Boehner more room to maneuver.

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 debt ceiling to go up reinforced that unhappiness.

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."

Richard Simon, Kathleen Hennessey and Evan Halper in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.