Six Theories for Eric Cantor's Loss

Was it immigration reform? Cantor's ambition? His religion? Tricks from Democratic voters? Everyone has an idea.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

How did it happen?

That's the dazed question on everyone's lips in official Washington today. For some, it's a happy daze; for others, it's a fog of depression. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning defeat in a Republican primary on Tuesday—by a not-even-close 11 points—took the political world by surprise. It's difficult to piece together what happened, and many of the reasons being proffered seem self-serving. The reality is surely a mix many factors, but here are a few leading theories.

1. Immigration: If there's a consensus explanation for what happened, it's that immigration reform sank Cantor. Brat accused Cantor of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants over and over again. The majority leader is hardly a radical on the issue, but he worked to move some pieces of reform forward. In particular, he professed a desire to make some sort of accommodation for "DREAMers," undocumented children who were brought to the United States by their parents—although he also worked to keep a comprehensive reform bill from the House floor. Brat used these positions as a bludgeon in his race against Cantor; Cantor responded with fliers boasting he was "stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal immigrants amnesty" and saying he didn't support "blanket amnesty." A pro-immigration group released a poll Wednesday pushing back, and argued that Cantor's district is actually fertile ground for immigration. But that's a minority view. Instant reaction to Cantor's loss is that it spells the death of immigration reform (assuming it wasn't dead already) and will scare Republicans away from further efforts for the foreseeable future.

2. Personality: Not everyone buys the immigration explanation. From Washington to Richmond and beyond Tuesday night, the air was thick with bipartisan Schadenfreude. Despite attaining the No. 2 position in the House, Cantor managed to alienate or at least annoy a great number of people on his way. Liberals found him smarmy and obnoxious; conservatives found him treacherous and untrustworthy. "[Cantor] and his staff have repeatedly antagonized conservatives," influential conservative Erick Erickson wrote Tuesday night. "One conservative recently told me that Cantor’s staff were the 'biggest bunch of a**holes on the Hill.' An establishment consultant who backed Cantor actually agreed with this assessment."

To get a sense of how this happened, it's helpful to look back at Ryan Lizza's definitive profile a year ago. Cantor began his career as a fairly moderate Republican. When the Tea Party wave struck, he maneuvered himself into position as the movement's man in the GOP leadership, a guy who was less squishy than Speaker John Boehner and got what the conservatives were talking about. Boehner loyalists eyed him with some suspicion; clearly, Cantor had designs on the speakership, and they wondered if Boehner could trust his lieutenant. But the Tea Partiers never seemed to totally trust him either, put off by questions about the sincerity of his transition. Their doubts were affirmed by Cantor's vote to raise the debt ceiling and again in March, when Cantor helped to sneak a Medicare-reimbursement bill through the House on a voice vote. "Cantor lost his race because he was running for Speaker of the House of Representatives while his constituents wanted a congressman," Erickson wrote. "The Tea Party and conservatives capitalized on that with built-up distrust over Cantor’s other promises and made a convincing case Cantor could not be trusted on immigration either."

3. Trouble at home: Meanwhile, Cantor was undermining his support in the Old Dominion. One of the quirks of Virginia politics is the use of conventions rather than primaries for some races. As Jon Ward explains, the process of choosing delegates for conventions is called "slating," or choosing a slate of representative voters. In 2012, hardliners in the Virginia GOP changed the rules so that the 2013 gubernatorial nominee would be nominated at convention, which tends to favor energized, grassroots activists. That resulted in the nomination of the very conservative Ken Cuccinelli for governor; he lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November. Cantor decided to push back this year to try and keep activists out, with an eye to changing the rules back by retaking control of the state central committee. The effect, one Republican operative wrote, was to "vigorously poke a nest of already-angry hornets." Meanwhile, some Virginians felt that Cantor was stinting on constituent services while he worked to raise his profile in Washington.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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