The Other Reason Eric Cantor Lost: Chickens Came Home to Roost

The Republican congressman was a victim of his party’s redistricting. But don’t count on blacks delivering his seat to the Democrats. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) at a press conference following a Republican conference meeting on Feb. 5, 2013, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) at a press conference following a Republican conference meeting on Feb. 5, 2013, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

The News: Republican lawmakers are jockeying to succeed Rep. Eric Cantor as House majority leader following his embarrassing primary defeat Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for June 19 that could push the GOP further to the ideological right.

The apparent leading candidate is Cantor’s longtime lieutenant, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who represents the Republican establishment. He could face a challenge from one of two staunchly conservative Texas lawmakers: Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the Financial Services Committee, and Pete Sessions, chairman of the Rules Committee. Both congressmen are supported by Tea Party groups.

Cantor, a seven-term member from Virginia, announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his role as the No. 2 Republican in Congress after losing convincingly to college professor Dave Brat, a political novice and conservative aligned with the local Tea Party. Cantor has been one of President Barack Obama’s most pugnacious adversaries, having devised House Republicans’ no-to-everything strategy against the White House. But right-wing Republicans and Tea Party groups accused Cantor of having strayed from conservative principles.

“Maybe we had it right somewhere in the middle,” Cantor said during a Wednesday press conference announcing his resignation from the House leadership. “I think that this town should be about trying to strike common ground.”

The Take: Everybody and their mama have offered reasons for Cantor’s defeat: He supported “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants (true for conservatives, but actually false), wasn’t visible enough in his district (true), was a jerk who’d alienated lawmakers (true), ticked off Tea Party activists with a failed power grab of the state-party committee (true) and opportunistically reinvented himself one too many times (true).

These factors explain why Cantor became a marked man. But they don’t entirely explain how he lost to a newcomer, whose Tea Party candidacy was so obscure that even the national Tea Party groups chose not to give him any coin.

It’s nothing new for conservative voters to be angry with their Republican representatives. This year Tea Partiers unleashed their frustrations on not only Cantor but also Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), among others. (Unlike Cantor, Graham is a bona fide supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and, thus, honestly earned the bull’s eye that conservatives placed on his back.)

Why didn’t McConnell and Graham lose their primaries as Cantor did? For one thing, they took their challengers seriously and ran strong campaigns. Cantor did not.

But what’s been overlooked is that Cantor became a victim of his own party’s gerrymandering of congressional districts. The chickens came home to roost.

After the 2010 elections gave Republicans control of a majority of state legislatures, they used the once-a-decade redistricting process to draw new congressional boundaries to protect GOP seats. They exploited a 5-to-1 advantage over Democrats in the number of congressional districts that both parties could rearrange. The result: Of 234 House Republicans, 230 represented districts redrawn to include mostly conservative, white voters.