After Former 'Young Gun' Gets Outdrawn, House GOP Faces New Future

For more on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprising primary loss, Audie Cornish speaks with former Republican Rep. Tom Davis.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor is expected to give up his post as House Majority Leader. Just hours after Cantor's loss in his district primary in Virginia, House leaders are meeting on Capitol Hill. Republicans say Cantor will step down in July, and the scramble is on to replace him and to rethink party strategy. Among the policy issues that may be affected, immigration reform. We'll hear more on that coming up.

BLOCK: Once upon a time, Cantor was a rising star among an upstart generation of self-proclaimed young gun Republican in the house. He's now in his seventh term, and he looked beyond the path to become House Speaker. That was until last night when Cantor was toppled by a Tea Party-aligned candidate, economics professor David Brat.

CORNISH: Here to talk more about it is Tom Davis. He's a former congressman from Virginia. Welcome to the program.

TOM DAVIS: Well, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Give us a sense of what Leader Cantor's role has been in shaping things within the caucus in the House 'cause we want to have a better sense of how much of a shakeup this is for the Republican leadership.

DAVIS: Well, this is, I think - this is a loss for not just the party leadership in the house because Eric was a very stabilizing force that really talked to all of the members and all of the factions and try to pull things together. But in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you can imagine, the cloud of Virginia is going to be greatly diminished in the next Congress. Eric paid a price for being a national party leader in this environment. Republican voters in his district basically don't like President Obama. They want somebody who's going to express their anger when they come to Washington, you know, and shout from the rooftops not somebody that going to sit down and negotiate. That's the discordance you have with being a party leader and having to do work product legislatively - having to pass a debt ceiling bill. No leader in politics today in Congress is popular.

CORNISH: At the same time, you know, campaign records reported in The Times today indicated that Cantor's campaign spent almost more money at steakhouses than the other candidate has spent altogether, I mean, is this simply a case of a lawmaker who lost touch with his constituents?

DAVIS: Well, I don't think the spending records really tell the whole story because Cantor's campaign finance - a lot of these steak dinners were out of the district helping other Republicans as he traveled the country - you can pay for that out of your campaign account. Now, the problem for Eric, and I think anything for any other Republican leader, is you're out around the country raising money for party and helping to elect other Republican candidates - you're not in your district.

CORNISH: What does this mean for the House Republican caucus when a leader, like the House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, loses his primary? Does this empower that wing of the caucus that has been most unhappy with this leadership?

DAVIS: Yeah, the irony is that a lot of the conservatives weren't that upset with Cantor, in Washington, it was the folks back in his home district that were more upset.

CORNISH: But you've said in the past that the Tea Party folks in the house think there winning.

DAVIS: Well, they are in many ways and having seen Cantor defeated sends chills down the spine of members when it comes to taking a vote on compromising or working with the president because you can topple the majority leader - who is seen as the more conservative member of the Republican leadership and he is not conservative enough, what does that mean for me? This opens up a leadership fight. I just would say this about Leader Cantor in stepping down - that is a statesmanlike thing to do.

CORNISH: Stepping down from the leadership.

SPEAKER: Let's not let this go for six months while people are carving each other up in a leadership race. Let's get this thing filled immediately and I think he's going out as he came in, with class.

CORNISH: Just to pick apart, at least one or two of issues of substance here that have been ongoing house, one is the issue of immigration - people looking to this race and noticing that Eric Cantor's challenger - David Brat - accused him of backing amnesty for illegal immigrants. Of course, Leader Cantor has said he does not support amnesty. But does this issue raising itself in this race kill off any chance of this leadership really bringing back that immigration issue?

DAVIS: Well, it certainly makes it more difficult but let me say this on immigration - you know, what is amnesty? It was described in the Republican cloakroom by another Republican member amnesty is whatever talk radio people say it is. Point in fact, amnesty is in the eye of the beholder. I'm sure in Eric's eyes, this wasn't amnesty. When you talk about, you know, helping kids who served in the military given them citizenship and the like - a mini dream act. Republicans nationally know they need to find some compromise on this issue where demographically it really hurts the party of long-term. So he gets hit from both sides on this. And it just talks about how difficult American politics is today. Eric had the guts to tackle this issue, he tried to talk responsibly. You can be right on an issue but if you can't deliver the votes, you're not with a damn.

CORNISH: Tom Davis, former Virginia Congressman. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: Thank you for having me.

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