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Editorial: The Write Goes Wrong; The Defeat of Eric Cantor

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

When it comes to writing a political epitaph for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, it’s hard to decide between, “He just wasn’t conservative enough” and “In your heart, you know he’s far right.”

Paradoxically, both are apt. Despite being adamantly opposed to immigration-, tax- and health-care reform, Cantor was upset in a primary election last week by David Brat, an economics professor so obscure that he failed to attract the backing even of the major Tea Party groups that inspired his long-shot bid. As a result, he raised only about $200,000 and was outspent by Cantor on the order of 40-to-1. In fact, the incumbent spent more at steakhouses ($168,000) than his challenger did in his whole campaign ($123,000).

Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House who was widely regarded as the likely successor to Speaker John A. Boehner, apparently paid the price for the precious few responsible actions he took as majority leader, including approving $50.7 billion in aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2013 and voting to raise the debt ceiling in 2014. The latter, in particular, is a bete-noir to the Tea Party wing. Ironically, it was Cantor who helped encourage the Tea Party Class of 2010 in the House to embark on the series of debt standoffs that raised the specter of default and nearly spelled disaster for the country.

In another irony, the Tea Party is laying claim to Brat’s victory, even though none of its major groups endorsed him. “I met with all of them,” Brat told The New York Times in February. “But it’s tough. Everybody just wants to see the polls, how much money you’ve raised. But they do not know what’s going on on the ground.”

In truth, Brat may belong more properly to the Flat-Earth-Society wing of the Republican Party than to the Tea Partiers. Asked following the primary about his position on the federal minimum wage, Brat told MSNBC, “I’m a free market guy. Our labor markets right now are distorted from too many regulations.” When the interviewer persisted and asked whether he opposed the minimum wage, the Times reported, Brat hesitated and replied, “Um, um, um, I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one.” It hardly seems unreasonable to expect a candidate for Congress who is also an economist to have a position on that question.

The Republican Party is often described as currently being in a state of civil war, with insurgents taking aim at establishment types. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that what it most closely resembles at present is a Soviet-era Communist Party, which to outsiders looks like a monolith but which, in its internal workings, regularly subjects members to purges for the slightest real, or imagined, ideological deviation.

For example, Cantor has been a leading obstructionist when it comes to immigration reform, but made the mistake of once expressing the thought that a reform bill might include a path to citizenship for children who had been brought illegally into the country. For that heresy, Brat pilloried him as “the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty.”

Brat’s victory almost certainly means that there will be no immigration reform this year and probably not before the 2016 presidential election. This suggests to us that the Republican Party is perilously close to death-wish territory. Given the nation’s rapidly changing demographics, the GOP’s chances of capturing the White House without reaching out to Latino voters seem to be slim indeed. Sometimes when you would rather be far right than president, you guarantee that result.