Eric Cantor's stunning political upset: 5 things to know

Eric Cantor's defeat in a Virginia Republican primary Tuesday will go down in the history books as one of the most shocking political upsets Washington has ever witnessed. The House majority leader lost to a low-profile candidate backed by the Tea Party.
House majority leader Eric Cantor delivers a concession speech in Richmond, Va., on June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the Republican primary to Tea Party candidate Dave Brat. (Steve Helber/The Associated Press)

An earthquake. Apocalyptic. An upset for the ages. A wake-up call. This is how Tuesday night’s stunning defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary race is being described.

The Republican party’s second-ranking member in the House of Representatives lost to a previously unknown Tea Party-backed college professor named David Brat. The fallout from this surprising result included Cantor announcing Wednesday that he will serve out his term but will step down as House leader on July 31. He told reporters that he will leave political analysis to them, but explained the loss in part by simply saying he came up short and the voters chose someone else.

He's stepping down with "great humility," and though he didn't announce any immediate plans for what he will do after he leaves Capitol Hill, Cantor said he will keep fighting for conservative values.

"While I will not be on the ballot in November, I will be a champion for conservatives across the nation who are dedicated to preserving liberty and providing opportunity,” he said.

There are many angles to this major political story to pick apart. Here are a few key things to know about how it happened and what it all means.

  • Money and power didn’t matter in this race

For once in American politics, the biggest spender didn’t bring home the victory. Cantor had reportedly raised more than $5 million and spent more than a million bucks on this race — Brat certainly did not. He was on a $200,000 shoestring budget. Cantor has worked in Washington for more than a decade, he’s well-connected and enjoyed the support of 377 political action committees representing virtually every special interest group and economic sector according to Politico. But it didn’t matter. "Dollars do not vote — you do," Brat said in his victory speech. He pulled off a win without deep pockets or the major influential backers that Cantor had. Brat did, however, have the endorsement of conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham. She used her program to help boost his profile and hosted a rally for him.

  • Cantor may have forgotten where he came from

One factor that likely contributed to Cantor’s defeat was a sense that he ignored his home base, the people who sent him to Washington in the first place. It was no secret that Cantor had ambition to become the next Speaker of the House and he spent a lot of time travelling the country building his national profile and raising money for the party. Even on election day on Tuesday he was in Washington, not his district, meeting with donors and lobbyists at a Starbucks. His district is known to be a conservative one and Brat tried to portray Cantor as not conservative enough, as someone who was part of the Washington establishment and out-of-touch with local concerns.

  • Any hope for immigration reform this year is dashed

Immigration reform was an issue in this primary contest. Cantor was a Republican who expressed support for certain immigration reform measures and Brat used that to his advantage. He portrayed Cantor as soft on illegal immigration and that helped rally Tea Party supporters. Cantor was seen as someone on Capitol Hill that could help forge some kind of consensus on immigration. But that looks more elusive now and it’s unlikely any major overhauls will get through Congress.

Republican Representative Peter King told MSNBC he's concerned not just about immigration policy but other issues too. "My concern is that a lot of things are going to be dead and pushed to the side. I'm concerned that, for instance, the Ted Cruz supporters, the Rand Paul supporters are going to use this as an excuse to basically stop the government from functioning," King said.

  • This throws the Republican leadership into turmoil

After Speaker John Boehner, Cantor is the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives. Now that he won’t be the Republican candidate in this fall’s mid-term elections, he becomes a lame duck. He obviously realized that and announced that he'll step down as leader July 31. So there will be short-term consequences for the leadership and longer-term ones. Retirement rumours have been swirling around Boehner and Cantor was largely viewed as his heir apparent. If Boehner goes and Cantor’s gone too, that means a wide leadership vacuum for the Republicans on Capitol Hill. Their dual absences will set off new rounds of competition within the Republican Party and divided loyalties.

  • The Tea Party's wake-up call

Tea Party candidates are challenging establishment Republicans in primaries all over the country but so far have had limited success. Until now, only one other House incumbent, 91-year-old Ralph Hall, had been defeated by a challenger. The Brat victory is a huge win for the Tea Party. not just because they won a primary but because of who they beat. “Eric Cantor’s loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching,” L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the conservative group ForAmerica and a Brat-backer, said last night. Another Tea Party victory could be coming soon. Senator Thad Cochran has been forced into a run-off on June 24 in Mississippi, an indication that the Tea Party is also alive and well in that district. The Tea Party will play up these developments as signs of momentum.