Upset Of Eric Cantor Deals A Shock To GOP Establishment

Eric Cantor became the first house majority leader ever to lose a primary, losing the GOP nomination to Tea Party challenger David Brat in the Republican primary.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A huge political shock for the Republican party - the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, is on his way out. Cantor suffered a major upset in today's primary election in Virginia. He lost to an underdog backed by the Tea Party, and it wasn't even close. For more, we're joined by NPR's Tamara Keith. And, Tamara, let's put this in context. This is being described in historic terms - one of the most shocking upsets in congressional history. And it seems that nobody saw this coming.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Exactly. I mean, unprecedented is not exactly the right word. There have been other big defeats, but you have to go way back to find them. Here you have the second-in-charge of the House Republicans, second-highest ranking political figure, knocked out in a primary no less and coming after two previous races where there were no real signs of any trouble. He wasn't even challenged in 2010. In 2012, he won 79 percent in his primary. But David Brat came out of sort of nowhere, was a Tea Party favorite candidate and blew Eric Cantor away.

BLOCK: And we should mention that Eric Cantor was considered to be a likely successor to the speaker of the house, John Boehner. Interesting, Tam, that even David Brat's main strategist told Politico he was stunned. I think we all are waiting to wake up to see if this really happened, he said.

KEITH: Yeah, well, and Eric Cantor, in addition to being often talked about as a speaker-in-waiting, is also just a prolific fundraiser. He outraised David Brat significantly. Cantor had $5 million that he raised. David Brat raised $200,000. Cantor came out early and ran ads against Brat, which to some was seen as a sign of weakness.

And what Brat had on his side was that he was seen as the outsider that - sort of the Tea Party candidate. He also became the favorite candidate of many in conservative media, which certainly helped him. And Eric Cantor had this problem of, he is in the leadership. He is sort of, in many ways, easily painted as the Republican establishment. Though, at times, he's worked well with the Tea Party and seen as a sympathetic figure - even got some votes last year when they were trying to oust - when some Tea Party folks were trying to oust John Boehner as speaker. Eric Cantor actually got some votes in that effort. But he was easily painted as an establishment figure, and at times, has been seen as sort of an opportunist who hung with the Tea Party guys because they were the cool kids and at other times has been more moderate.

BLOCK: Eric Cantor, I think, did cast votes to raise the debt ceiling to end the government shutdown. Did those back backfire among the conservative base back home?

KEITH: Well, here's the thing. When you're in the leadership, you actually do have to take those tough votes. You have to do the things that make the deals happen. And behind the scenes, you're twisting arms and trying to convince other people to take those votes. But certainly, those types of votes - also at least some willingness to talk about immigration reform or to talk about a DREAM Act of some kind - those things were absolutely held against him in this race.

BLOCK: Briefly, Tamara, should we assume now that the Tea Party has not been written off in terms of its electoral power?

KEITH: That is - I think that the obituaries may have been written a little bit too soon. Certainly, Eric Cantor is now the biggest scalp that they've gotten in these primaries. And Democrats are sort of gleefully looking at this and saying, look at this race. This is an example of just how extreme the Republican Party is.

BLOCK: OK, Tamara, thanks so much. That's NPR's Tamara Keith reporting on today's major political upset - again, the news that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has lost to his primary election opponent, David Brat, backed by the Tea Party.

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