Politicians in both major parties spent Wednesday contemplating a new world — a place where an unknown, underfunded college professor could crush House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s GOP primary.
Was it the campaign? Immigration? The tea party? General anti-incumbent malaise?
All the above, and more. And campaigns ignoring the lessons from Cantor’s historic defeat, they said, are doomed to repeat it.
“Those who sleep, die,” longtime GOP consultant Jeff Roe said.
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But deciding which issues mattered and which were incidental will be complicated and difficult.
“There has to be a variety of factors” for such a “stunning” loss, said Kansas-based Republican consultant Aaron Trost.
Campaigns don’t have lots of time to figure it out.
Milton Wolf, for example, predicted that Dave Brat’s surprise victory will be replicated in his own GOP primary fight in Kansas against Sen. Pat Roberts, now less than eight weeks away. Wolf identifies himself as a tea party candidate.
“Eric Cantor isn’t the only incumbent from Virginia who is going to lose his primary this year,” Wolf’s statement said.
A Roberts spokesman scoffed.
“Only in Milton Wolf’s twisted dreams is there any connection between (Cantor’s loss) and the Kansas Senate race,” said Leroy Towns in an email.
Analysts disagreed on the eventual impact of Brat’s victory on the Wolf-Roberts contest.
Exporting Brat’s House district victory strategy to an entire state will be difficult, said Larry Jacob, a Kansas City-based Democratic consultant.
“Milton Wolf still has to present himself as a credible candidate,” he said.
Yet campaign operatives in both parties said they expect Brat’s win to, at minimum, re-energize several insurgent candidacies this summer, including Wolf’s.
“This has to give other Republicans — think Pat Roberts in Kansas and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee — a scare,” wrote analysts on the NBC politics blog.
Following a series of early primary defeats, tea party campaigns were written off by many analysts as too far from the GOP’s mainstream to prevail. Many Republicans, they said, were jolted by high-profile losses in 2012 and wanted to avoid a repeat in this year’s contests.
But Sen. Thad Cochran’s primary setback in Mississippi last week began to change the story. Brat’s victory Tuesday exploded it.
Tea party activists were ecstatic.
“This was a seismic shift,” said radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, an early booster of Brat’s campaign.
Political science professor Joe Aistrup, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University, said the Virginia outcome will show mainstream Republicans that “no one is safe from the tea party.”
Other Republicans, though, urged caution. They pointed out that Sen. Lindsey Graham easily defeated six tea party opponents in Tuesday’s South Carolina GOP primary.
“Reading too much into the tea leaves of Rep. Cantor is not something that’s all that productive when looking at other races,” said Matt Wills, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
Some Democrats said tea party victories in this year’s primaries might help their cause in November. Outsider candidacies cost the GOP several winnable seats in 2012, they said.
But they also saw a scarier message in Tuesday’s Virginia results: Voters may be angry at officeholders in both parties.
“There’s an anti-incumbency wave,” said Democratic consultant Richard Martin in Kansas City.
At the same time, he said, there may have been specific problems in Cantor’s campaign that can’t be assigned to other candidacies.
“It was a poorly executed campaign where they didn’t pay attention to boots on the ground, where you get daily feedback,” he said.
Trost, whose company is working for the Roberts campaign, said the lopsided results suggest Cantor lost touch with his supporters in Virginia. Voters, he said, will punish officeholders who appear too aloof.
Cantor’s defeat will have a policy impact, outsiders said, as well as a political one.
Brat’s winning strategy — opposing almost any version of immigration reform — dooms that discussion in this Congress, they said. Many argued that pursuit of any path to citizenship for those who immigrated illegally will be seen as toxic inside the GOP.
More broadly, the defeat of the House’s second-ranking leader is expected to increase gridlock in Washington.
“Every politician’s immediate concern is their election, and they’re trying to figure out how Cantor’s defeat impacts them,” said former congressman Lee Hamilton, the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “This calibration distracts from legislation and contributes to inertia in Congress. I’m afraid that even less will get done.”
Tuesday’s results could threaten House Speaker John Boehner, who easily defeated the tea party in his own primary this year, several conservative House members said.
Late Wednesday, Cantor said he would resign his leadership position at the end of July, touching off a scramble among some Republican House members to fill the void.
But he declined to examine the reasons behind his stunning defeat.
“I’ll leave the political analysis of what happened to y’all,” he told reporters.
“We did everything we could. … We just came up short.”