June 12, 2014 / 8:00 PM / 5 years ago

What Eric Cantor’s loss — and a quirky economist’s win — means for Republicans

Reihan Salam

On Tuesday Republican primary voters asserted themselves in spectacular fashion by wresting the GOP nomination from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and giving it to quirky economist Dave Brat, who now looks very likely to win the seat in the fall. This is much more than a run-of-the-mill primary upset. Because Cantor was second in command to Speaker John Boehner among Republicans in the House, his defeat has set off a scramble for power, the outcome of which has yet to be determined.

Cantor’s defeat has led to searching questions about what exactly Brat’s victory means? Let’s run through a few different interpretations.

Immigration. One widely-held view is that Cantor’s defeat means that immigration reform is dead. There is one problem with this line of thinking: comprehensive immigration reform, as endorsed by the Obama White House and a bipartisan group of senators that includes Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and John McCain (R-AZ), among others, was already dead. The fundamental bone of contention is whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, provided they jump through various hoops, like paying back taxes and demonstrating English language proficiency, most of which would be impossible to implement.

Grassroots conservatives staunchly opposed a soft amnesty along these lines when it was proposed by the Bush administration, and they continue to oppose it now. They’ve long had the numbers and the influence in Congress to keep legislation to this effect from making it to President Barack Obama’s desk. It’s true that Cantor and other Republicans, including Boehner, had tried to find ways to revive the immigration reform effort, but they weren’t gaining much traction.

Tea Party vs. the Establishment. Though Cantor is now being portrayed as an establishment Republican par excellence, it is important to remember that he had long styled himself as a more conservative alternative to Boehner, who was always careful to cultivate allies to his right. Cantor predates the Tea Party, and his urbane manner contrasted with the populist style that is a hallmark of the Tea Party right.

Nevertheless, Cantor was, by and large, a man with whom Tea Party conservatives could do business, and he was willing to take on the thankless task of leading often fractious House Republicans. It is true that, as Ross Douthat observes, Cantor was seen as a friend of K Street, the lobbying corridor that does so much to shape American politics on both sides of the partisan divide. But it’s only relatively recently that (some) Tea Party conservatives decided that they wanted Cantor’s scalp. To suggest that Cantor’s defeat is a victory for the Republican right over the party’s squishy centrists is not quite correct.

Change vs. the Status Quo. My preferred interpretation is that Cantor’s defeat represents a defeat for those Republicans who believe that there is nothing wrong with the party that can’t be solved by a charismatic candidate and moving to the left on social issues like marriage equality and immigration reform. National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru laments Cantor’s defeat because he had done so much to tout the work of conservative policy thinkers offering an alternative to the centralized, top-down, big-government policies offered by the left and the coziness with big business and Wall Street that defines too much of the right. He is right to do so. Cantor really did make an effort to open up the domestic policy conversation on the right.

Yet like Douthat, Ponnuru suggests that Cantor’s shift might have been too little too late: had Cantor been quicker to champion Main Street over Wall Street, he might have bested Brat. Instead, Brat’s call for a Main Street agenda resonated with enough GOP primary voters to put him over the top. If Brat’s success doesn’t demonstrate that rank-and-file Republicans are hungry for change, nothing will.

The Tea Party movement does not represent some irrational, nihilistic force, as its critics both inside and outside of the Republican coalition maintain. Rather, it is a movement founded on the belief that the Republican elite has grown fat, happy and complacent at a time when the country faces serious challenges — economic, fiscal, and social — and that the elite needs to be shaken out of its torpor.

What the movement needs is an agenda: something to be for, not just something to be against. Cantor’s defeat underscores that this longing for change persists, and that it won’t go away until Republicans start seriously addressing the economic stagnation at the bottom and the crony-capitalist corruption at the top of the American economy.

PHOTOS: U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor pauses while discussing his defeat in his Virginia Republican primary election during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

A truck driven by a supporter for Tea Party candidate Dave Brat’s campaign is parked in front of his headquarters in Glen Allen, Virginia, June 11, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

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