Shocking Upset: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Loses Primary

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat Tuesday night in Virginia. Cantor was widely expected to eventually replace House Speaker John Boehner.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning, Washington is trying to make sense of one of the most stunning upsets in congressional history. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, a man many expected to be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives, was defeated in his Republican primary by Tea Party activist David Brat. Cantor conceded this last night.

CONGRESSMAN ERIC CANTOR: I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight, and it's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us.

MONTAGNE: Eric Cantor hugely outspent his opponent and Brat took note of that in his victory speech.

DAVID BRAT: The reason we won this campaign - there's just one reason, and that's because dollars do not vote - you do.

MONTAGNE: Here to make sense of this political earthquake is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: OK. So upset earthquake - what happened? How did this happen?

LIASSON: Well, that is what a lot of Republicans are asking themselves this morning. Every cliche applies here, and we've all used a lot of them. This was an earthquake. It completely came out of nowhere - biggest defeat of a congressional leader in memory. Cantor's own internal polling had him winning by large margins. Instead, he was beat by more than 10 points. He spent $5 million. Brat spent $150,000. Still, he was able to depose the second most powerful Republican in Washington. And this completely contradicts the storyline that was congealing around this primary cycle that the establishment had put the Tea Party back on its heels - might be time to rethink that. This proves, I think, that the battle between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment is still raging. And the Tea Party is still a major force in the Republican Party.

MONTAGNE: Mara, take us back a little in this particular race. Why was the Tea Party so angry at Eric Cantor?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because he tried to align himself with the movement before. He had positioned himself as a conservative counterweight to John Boehner. He was trying to straddle the two wings of the party, but he couldn't pull it off. Immigration reform was a big issue in the race. Conservatives simply didn't believe Cantor's claims that he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants even though Cantor ran some very tough anti-amnesty ads. The Tea Party was also angry at him because he voted to end the government shut down. He voted to raise the debt ceiling. They thought he had become too close to K Street lobbyist and he was ignoring his constituents. There were a lot of complaints about Eric Cantor. And Conservative Talk Radio chimed in, and in a very, very low turnout primary, activists had the upper hand.

MONTAGNE: And so looking forward at least to the near future, what is the fallout for the Republican Party?

LIASSON: I think the first casualty of Cantor's defeat is immigration reform. Everyone was waiting for the end of the primary season to see if John Boehner could try again to bring it up in the House. I think now many Republican House members will be skittish to vote for immigration reform because of Cantor's defeat. There was a bit of political theater around this last night. There were a group of pro-immigration reform activist protesting outside of the ballroom where Cantor was supposedly holding his victory party. After he conceded, they rushed into the ballroom and continued chanting. I think that chances for reform are dead this year in the House if they ever had a chance before this, and I don't think that's good for the Republican Party in the long run.

MONTAGNE: OK. So immigration aside, what about other issues?

LIASSON: Well, I think this really will affect everything. I think it will rekindle Republican incumbents' fears that they might face a primary if they step across the aisle or follow the leadership on tough votes. And it completely broils the Republican leadership succession battle because Cantor was the next in line. He was expected to be the next Speaker. As Majority Leader, he was in a good position to take over if John Boehner should retire.

MONTAGNE: Pretty dramatic - just one last question. What else happened last night?

LIASSON: Well, South Carolina Republican, Lindsey Graham avoided a runoff. He had a lot of Tea Party opponents, but he got enough votes so he now is the nominee. We're also still waiting to see what happens in Mississippi - that's the other state where the Tea Party pulled an upset, forcing the incumbent Senator Thad Cochran into a runoff. That will be on June 24. Cochran is now the underdog in that race against Chris McDaniel, who is the Tea Party Candidate.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson.

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