Cantor and the Tea Partyers
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
On a day when Republicans throughout the U.S. wondered if Senator Lindsay Graham from South Carolina could successful best his five Tea Party opponents and be re-nominated to another term, Graham won with 57% of the vote. Meanwhile House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose own polls had shown him winning an overwhelming victory over David Brat, was crushed in his Virginia primary by Brat 56-44%. As Republican observers and media analysts have indicated this election was an absolute earthquake election in the Republican Party.
For the GOP, Cantor’s defeat is the most obvious, visible challenge yet to the strength of the Tea Party and the weakness of the more moderate voices in the GOP. When the voters oust their Majority Leader, it is not just defeating any Republican incumbent in a primary; it is a clear shout-out to the Party that they need to start to seriously listen to their much more conservative elements. It may well already set up a fight this summer to replace Cantor, now.
This defeat was also a fascinating commentary on the use of money. In a year when undoubtedly there will be more money spent in various congressional campaigns than ever; in this race Brat spent $200,000, had a 23 year old campaign manager and reportedly a staff of 3. Cantor on the other hand raised over $5.5 million and had a 23 member campaign staff. In April and May Brat spent $75,000 compared with over $1 million spent by Cantor. What the voters said was that money will not necessarily bring votes.
Cantor’s defeat has two other interesting implications beyond what has been discussed about the policy consequences of any Republican legislative strategy including their effort to achieve a compromise on immigration reform. The defeat of the only major national Republican Jewish political leader might well affect the growing penetration of the Republican Party among American Jews; specifically now at the non- presidential, congressional level.
Perhaps even more challenging will be whether the Tea Party success in Virginia will spill over among current Republican Members in Congress as they consider various foreign policy issues during the next few months. The Tea Party already has demonstrated a clear isolationist tendency, so now one needs to watch carefully how Cantor’s defeat will influence GOP votes on full funding for foreign aid; extending new funds to anti-Assad opponents in Syria; providing full funding for Egypt; and expediting American withdrawal from Afghanistan. There may well be key congressional votes on Israel-Palestinian peace initiatives or non-initiatives. Finally, Congress will be considering key questions involving Ukraine, an Iran nuclear weapons understanding, and increased U.S. European military deployments.