Eric Cantor: Burned at the Steakhouse

How the House Majority Leader lost to the Tea Party

Eric Cantor
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Eric Cantor (right) speaks while flanked by House Speaker John Boehner during a news conference in Washington, DC.
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In a plot twist so bloody and twisted you'd think George R.R. Martin scripted it, the Tea Party has claimed the scalp of House Republican leader Eric Cantor.

Dave Brat's primary victory over a sitting Majority Leader – reportedly the first in U.S. political history – was incredible on its own merits. A formidable fundraiser, Cantor built a 26-1 cash advantage over his opponent, a no-name professor of economics. The spending was so lopsided that Cantor dropped nearly as much at steak houses ($168,000) as Brat did on his entire campaign ($200,000). Cantor's top-dollar political team expected a runaway victory. The campaign's last leaked internal poll showed him with a 34-point advantage. Instead, the Virginian got trounced by Brat, who himself rolled to a double-digit win.

Goliath Cantor's defeat to a Tea Party David is all the more striking because it comes amid a string of establishment GOP victories that seemed to be about quelling the fratricidal unrest of the Republican Party. Well-funded challenges to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, BFF of House Speaker John Boehner, had failed badly. In South Carolina last night, Sen. Lindsey Graham cruised to a primary victory outright, avoiding a potentially punishing runoff. (The Tea Party's last best hope to draw blood appeared to be in deep red Mississippi, where hoary establishment veteran Thad Cochran could still be ousted by a Tea Party loon.)

But Cantor's defeat is again feeding the flames of the GOP civil war. Most remarkable, the upset win wasn't astroturfed by outside groups. Brat's campaign was such a longshot that the big wing-nut money sat on the sidelines, investing next to nothing in his effort to unseat Cantor. Club For Growth sat on its wallet. According to right wing blogs, Tea Party Patriots leader Jenny Beth Martin couldn't be bothered to even meet with Brat. Nobody but nobody saw this coming: Barney Keller, Club For Growth's communications director tweeted last night: "Still in shock. Total shock."

Read our in-depth feature on the GOP's civil war

Brat appears to have won the old-fashioned way, rallying grassroots support against an incumbent who'd been seduced by the ways of Washington. Cantor has long carried water for Wall Street, which feathered his political nest. Writing Cantor's political obituary, the Wall Street Journal memorialized Cantor as "a favored conduit for Wall Street firms."

But Brat really hammered Cantor on immigration: blasting the majority leader as pro-amnesty with the help of talk hosts like Laura Ingraham, warning that Cantor's reelection would lead to open borders and a flood of new cheap foreign labor to rob Virginians of their jobs. "He's for amnesty and he's for reducing wages," Brat said at a recent press conference. "Eric Cantor does not represent you." (To the extent that Cantor's loss reinforces the perception that immigration reform is a new third rail in GOP politics, his loss could have national political ramifications, threatening the prospects of reform backers like Jeb Bush.)

Ironically, Cantor was hoist on his own populist petard. A nakedly ambitious man, Cantor thought he could harness the populist rage of the Tea Party movement and use it to further his own political career – and the carried interest of his hedge-funder patrons.

But having ushered these radicals to power in Congress, Cantor found he couldn't lead them. He tried to earn their respect by appealing to their destructive impulses – blowing up Boehner and Obama's "Grand Bargain." But when Cantor sought to stand as a vaguely moderating force, seeking to rally the House GOP to stand for something more than the repeal of Obamacare, or trying to close ranks with John Boehner to avoid a government shutdown, Cantor was met less with respect than with wrath.

In the end, the majority leader came off not as a principled reformer but as his true political self: an unctuous chameleon, a machine politician who could talk the Tea Party talk but never intended to walk the Tea Party walk.

For this recklessness, Eric Cantor is done. Quoting John F. Kennedy last night, former Obama advisor David Axelrod tweeted these pointed words:

"....those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.