The verdant country around Richmond, Virginia, has a gentle landscape of pretty subdivisions, shopping malls, Civil War monuments and small farms where most citizens label themselves as establishment Republicans, not Tea Party outsiders.
So it became a shock to the political order in Washington that local primary voters in this reliably Republican district would vote out the majority leader of the US House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, a seven-term conservative congressman in line to become the next speaker.
“This is a major disruption,” said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican and close personal friend of Cantor in the House where Republicans hold a 233-199 majority over Democrats, the party of President Barack Obama. “This is a huge tsunami in the legislative process that further complicates everything.”
Cantor’s defeat by David Brat, a political newcomer and economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, marks a resurgence for the Tea Party, according to analysts and lawmakers. It could derail immigration legislation passed by the Senate last year. It could also seriously curtail attempts by some Republicans to pass bipartisan legislation with the Obama administration.
Leading Republicans in South Carolina and Kentucky escaped Tea Party challenges in the latest round of primaries, while incumbents in Mississippi and Tennessee face stiff opposition from inexperienced, but more ideologically conservative candidates. Polls show a Republican advantage in the House, and they may even take the Senate during this round of mid-term elections, but analysts said the party’s swing to the right jeopardises its White House prospects in 2016.
“In 2016, if Republicans can’t figure out how to attract Hispanics and young, unmarried women, they don’t have a chance of winning the White House,” Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University told Al Jazeera. “They are divided. They can’t seem to get out of the rut by figuring out how to grow the party’s base, which is shrinking.”
In 1992, when Bill Clinton was first elected president, non-Hispanic whites – the core Republican demographic constituency in the US – accounted for 85 percent of the electorate. When Obama won re-election in 2012, it was 72 percent. Census data projects it will decline to 50 percent over the next 15 years, Abramowitz said.
‘Taxed enough already’
It was a classic case of the outsider versus the insider. In this case the outsider appeal won out.
The Tea Party is not a political party. Rather, it is a movement of local conservatives across the US who since 2010, have waged a battle for ideological purity within the Republican Party. The Tea Party draws its name from the acronym “taxed enough already”, and the fabled 1773 Boston Tea Party in which colonists revolted against taxes imposed by the British on the import of tea.
Rather than dumping bales of tea into Boston Harbour, the modern Tea Party’s tactic of choice is to challenge and defeat Republicans who show any ideological moderation or an inclination to compromise with Obama on issues like taxes, the national debt, government-sponsored healthcare and immigration reform.
Brat defeated Cantor in a June 10 primary by a landslide margin – more than 10 percentage points. Cantor’s defeat followed a year-long internal struggle for control of the Virginia Republican Party between grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans triggered by the 2013 defeat of Tea Party favourite, gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli.
“It was a classic case of the outsider versus the insider. In this case the outsider appeal won out,” Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, told Al Jazeera.
In campaign television adverts, Brat hammered Cantor for working with Obama, saying, “We just got the raw end of another liberal deal supported by Eric Cantor.”
Brat’s political consultant John Pudner boasted in an election-night victory email to Virginia Republicans: “The real story tonight was about the thousands of people who were fed up with the deal making between President Obama and Congressional leaders.”
Cantor’s bipartisanship with Obama
Inviting the mistrust of conservatives, Cantor had been a player in the House Republican leadership’s deal with Obama to lift the US debt limit. An opponent of Obama’s sweeping immigration reform proposals, Cantor had signalled a willingness to deal on narrower measures such as providing relief to children of undocumented immigrants. Hardline Republicans opposed these overtures.
Asked after his defeat whether he agreed with critics who said he was either too conservative or too compromising, Cantor offered two opposing messages. On the one hand, he said the differences between Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans should be put aside for the larger goal of electing a Republican House and Senate so “we can provide a proper check and balance to the Obama administration”.
Conservatives don't love Washington. If you're in leadership, they don't love what Washington does and they don't love what Washington doesn't do.
On the other hand, “Maybe we had it right somewhere in the middle. I think that this town should be about trying to strike common ground. I think more of that could probably be helpful,” Cantor said.
It was that ambivalence that proved fatal to Cantor’s ambitions. He became the first majority leader in US history to be defeated in a primary contest by his own party. The next day he was forced to resign his role as majority leader effective July 31, throwing the leadership of the House into turmoil and opening an internal debate among House Republicans on whether Speaker John Boehner should retain his position after the 2014 elections.
“Rank-and-file members of the Republican caucus here are getting so much frustration from our constituents about the Obama administration. They are angry at Democrats but they are angry at us for not pushing back harder,” said Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican and member of the House Tea Party caucus. “They are just livid. They are demanding that we do something and if we don’t do something they will replace us with someone who will.”
Feeding on that backlash against Obama, outside conservative groups and right-wing talk radio hosts like Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, who had backed Brat, continue to get involved in key election races in a bid to realign the national agenda, Fleming said. It means any Republican who tries to assume a leadership role in Washington that involves doing deals with the Obama White House and Senate Democrats could get targeted.
“Conservatives don’t love Washington. If you’re in leadership, they don’t love what Washington does and they don’t love what Washington doesn’t do,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a newsletter that tracks political contests nationwide.
Looking ahead to the next presidential election, the division between conservatives within the Republican Party creates challenges for its top candidates who must veer more right-wing to secure the nomination and then turn back to the centre of American politics to win the general election.