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.
This is why House Republicans feel entirely justified in their refusal to compromise with Obama and the Democrats. Those who do seek compromise—or are perceived to stray from the most conservative principles—can expect to be “primaried” by a right-wing challenger.
Cantor’s district was redrawn to include more rural conservative voters in the Richmond suburbs. They have taken to the populist anti-government, anti-spending rhetoric of the Tea Party, which clashes with Cantor’s profile as a career politician who embodies the elite, pro-business principles of traditional Republicans. Cantor is also Jewish in a district that now includes more Christians (like Brat, who credited his victory as a blessing from God).
A statewide race, as in McConnell’s and Graham’s Senate contests, opens the field to moderate voters who help dilute the impact of conservative voters. But because a congressional district is much smaller, it has the opposite effect, much to Cantor’s embarrassment. This is true especially in a midterm election, which is dominated by conservative, white voters.
With Cantor ousted, it might seem that the November general election, between two unproven and unknown candidates, now is wide open. The state Democratic Party is mobilizing behind its pick, Jack Trammell, who teaches at the same college as Brat and likewise is a first-timer. But the district has been a Republican stronghold for many years, and it went solidly for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012.
And although enough African Americans live in the district to help Trammell win, let’s not put too much stock in the notion that black voters could deliver. The Democrats no doubt will try to turn out blacks in the surprising numbers that carried Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to victory last year. But consider this: Even with strong black turnout, McAuliffe lost two of the three largest counties in Cantor’s district, while Brat won each of them.
By November, Tea Partiers should be celebrating having taken Cantor’s district and more broadly proving Republicans can’t win without them. They will have ensured that the party’s 2016 presidential nominee will be a gilded conservative. And they should find themselves still shut out of the White House.
Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., writes The Take and is a contributing editor at The Root. He appears on MSNBC and CNN and contributes to NPR. He is a former NPR correspondent and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal. Give him your “take” on Twitter.
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Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.