It didn’t matter that Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader or that he spent 10 times more money in the week leading up to the primary than his opponent had in his entire campaign coffers. Tea party challenger David Brat still defeated him in the Virginia primary last week, 56 to 44 percent. The tea party wave that brought Cantor back to Congress in 2010 just as easily swept him out.
As the initial shock of Cantor’s upset diminishes, the GOP must accept that the rumors of the tea party’s demise were exaggerated. The tea party is alive and well, and hardline social conservatives are as resolute in their opposition to immigration reform as ever before.
Cantor’s surprising defeat stemmed largely from his support for immigration reform. He publicly backed legislation that would put children brought here illegally on a path to citizenship, a move that became the backbone of Brat’s smear campaign against Cantor. “[Cantor wants to] bring more folks into the country,” Brat claimed, “increase the labor supply – and, by doing so, lower wage rates for the working person”.
Despite Cantor’s mailer efforts to assure voters he opposed amnesty, the tea party in Virginia was not persuaded to move from their hardline policy of zero immigration reform. So, at the hand of the tea party grassroots, Cantor suffered one of the most shocking defeats in modern House politics, toppling the GOP hierarchy in both Virginia and Washington.
While the implications of Cantor’s loss have been greatly exaggerated by both the right and the left, the one resounding message this sends is that no one is safe – any elected official, even a high ranking leader, can go down in defeat.
It is also safe to assume that immigration reform will grind to a halt for the remainder of the year. As an article in the LA Times puts it:
“The outcome was certain to not only ignite a leadership battle among the Republican majority in the House, but also to send a shudder though rank-and-file lawmakers who may become less willing to stray from tea party orthodoxy, particularly in the continuing debate over immigration reform.”
While the tea party celebrates this news, libertarian fusionists and moderate conservatives should see this as cause for concern. The liberty movement wants the establishment to toe the party line on fiscal, not social, issues. The Republican establishment is (now, more than ever) fully aware they can’t lean too far right, but incumbents up for reelection this year will be wary of ideologically stepping outside the conservative base. This will keep the GOP from appealing to the broader base of voters in statewide and national contests and move away from social conservatism.
And it’s not just congressional races at risk of a tea party choke-hold. Illinois, for example, faces a highly contested gubernatorial race this November; GOP candidate Bruce Rauner is polling 10 points above incumbent Pat Quinn. With Quinn at the helm, Illinois continues to have the worst unemployment rates in the Midwest and one of the worst in the nation, the lowest job growth in the nation, and a record high number of people leaving Illinois for better business climates (a rate of one every nine minutes). None of this matters to the tea party grassroots in the state, however. Rauner is not staunchly opposed to abortion and he openly supports amnesty, so the tea party grassroots simply refuse to vote for “the RINO Rauner.”
Legal abortion is not responsible for the sluggish economic growth in Illinois. Gay marriage and amnesty are not liable for the growing national deficit. But these are the issues that will lose or gain a candidate the support of the tea party—to the detriment of focusing on issues that the tea party was supposed to stand for: fiscal responsibility and limited government spending.
All GOP candidates, no matter how free-market friendly, will have to pander to the whims of the tea party to avoid being smashed by the voting masses. Despite the measurable good that the tea party is responsible for, this is not the sort of wild card fusionists want when heading into the pivotal elections of 2014 and 2016.