RICHMOND — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Republican primary Tuesday in a stunning defeat to Dave Brat, a little-known tea party-backed challenger, in one of the biggest upsets in recent political history.
Mr. Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College who called his win a “miracle,” defeated Mr. Cantor by 56 percent to 44 percent with all precincts reporting. CNN and The Associated Press called the race just a little over an hour after Virginia polls closed at 7 p.m.
“Obviously, we came up short,” Mr. Cantor told supporters at his headquarters at the Westin Hotel in the state capital.
“It’s disappointing, sure, but I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us,” he told the crowd.
While the returns rolled in through the evening, the mood turned from calm to shock and, among some, disbelief as Mr. Cantor was not overcoming an early deficit in his stronghold of Richmond’s inner suburbs.
Mr. Brat managed to overcome a tremendous disadvantage in fundraising and name recognition by, among other things, characterizing Mr. Cantor’s qualified support for granting legal status to some young illegal immigrants, known as dreamers, as a betrayal of conservative principles.
“I am just shocked. This is a political earthquake,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican. “This was a genuine grass-roots revolt.”
Regardless of his political future, Mr. Cantor’s loss would appear to quash any lingering hope of the Republican-controlled House passing comprehensive immigration reform this year.
Daniel Horowitz of the Madison Project, a group that has backed a number of conservative challengers this election cycle, said Mr. Brat’s victory “is not only a statement that the tea party is alive and well, but that amnesty and comprehensive open borders is dead on arrival.”
Democrats were crowing, with Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, contrasting Mr. Cantor’s defeat with Sen. Lindsey Graham’s ability to fend off several conservative challengers in South Carolina.
“Tonight’s election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration. The Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat. Cantor’s defeat does not change the fundamental fact that Republicans will become a minority party if they don’t address our broken immigration system.”
Nevertheless, a group of immigration reform proponents briefly stormed their way into the ballroom at the Westin after the outcome was certain, chanting “Si se puede” and “Yes we can” before police helped clear the room.
The well-funded Mr. Cantor had overwhelmed Mr. Brat on that front. Through May 21, Mr. Cantor had raised more than $5 million to Mr. Brat’s $206,663 and had $1.5 million on hand to Mr. Brat’s $83,870.
Though the final outcome was a shock to essentially all political observers of the political world, Mr. Cantor has had an uneasy alliance with the Republican Party’s conservative base this year and spent more of the primary campaign than he would have cared to beating back accusations from Mr. Brat that his stated positions on immigration mean he ultimately wants to work with President Obama to grant millions of illegal immigrants U.S. citizenship.
Tensions came to a head when conservative activists ousted Cantor ally Linwood Cobb from his post as chairman of the Republican Party’s 7th Congressional District committee.
“It’s easy to say that you’re going to stand up to Obama and the left-wing attack machine, but it is an entirely different thing to actually do it … to stand up and be counted,” Mr. Cantor told a riled-up crowd of Republican activists in early May.
But Mr. Brat and his own attacks also prodded Mr. Cantor to engage and air negative ads decrying Mr. Brat as a “liberal college professor.” Mr. Cantor also sent mailers touting his opposition to a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate last year.
In a recent interview with Richmond’s CBS affiliate, Mr. Cantor reiterated that he would not bring the Senate-passed immigration bill up for a vote on the House floor. That bill would provide a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
“But I have told the president that there are some things we can work on together,” he said. “We could work on the border security bill together. We could work on things like the kids. But so far the president has just insisted it’s all or nothing, my way or the highway, and that’s not going to happen.”
Democrats late Sunday nominated their candidate in the overwhelmingly Republican district, John “Jack” Trammell, who is also a Randolph-Macon professor.