Eric Cantor's angry new enemy: Why Tea Party wants to take him down

A loony extremist's doomed campaign will shift GOP politics even further to the right. Here's how

Published May 15, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Eric Cantor               (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Eric Cantor (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Before Republicans can get to the business of trying to boot the Democrats out of power, they first have to make it through the internecine battles of primary season. The Tea Party is going to war against the Republican establishment, and the establishment, still smarting from 2010’s Tea Party-powered blown opportunities, is fighting back. Both sides are claiming victories and everyone’s getting a little bit bloody.

One establishment figure who is sure to emerge victorious from his own primary challenge is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. His opponent, the superbly named David Brat, is an economics professor with the backing of influential conservative figures and Ann Coulter. He’s the first serious Tea Party challenger Cantor has had to face, but he still poses little threat. Cantor is popular in his heavily Republican district and a prolific fundraiser.

But that doesn’t mean Brat’s challenge to Cantor isn’t significant. His beef with Cantor is based largely on the majority leader’s votes to raise the debt ceiling, his vote to end the government shutdown, and his voiced support for immigration reform. Basically Brat is upset at Cantor’s complicity in basic acts of government competence, and this extremist position is being endorsed by major players in conservative politics.

Brat is slightly goofy and thoroughly unpolished as a candidate. His campaign website features a video of Brat explaining what he calls “The Republican Creed,” six principles that tick all the boxes needed to run for office as a Republican (free markets, liberty, God, Reagan, etc.). He’s also produced a candidate comparison that seeks to portray Cantor as a big government crony capitalist. “Since Congressman Cantor was elected in 2001, he has voted to raise the debt limit ten times,” Brat’s document accuses, implying that defaulting on debt payments and causing the economy to sink back into recession is the true conservative position.

Brat also considers Cantor to be an insufficiently committed opponent of the Affordable Care Act. “Eric Cantor voted to fully fund Obamacare,” his candidate comparison alleges, citing H.R. 2775 as evidence. For those who have blocked it out from their memories, H.R. 2775 was the continuing resolution passed by Congress and signed by the president that finally ended the 2013 government shutdown. That shutdown was precipitated by Eric Cantor and his Republican colleagues in the House, who insisted that continued funding of the government be contingent upon defunding the Affordable Care Act. The government reopened only after the Republicans had taken a brutal drubbing in public opinion and finally came to terms with the fact that they weren’t going to be able to defund Obamacare.

Brat’s position is that Cantor, in voting to allow the government to resume functioning and spare his party further political damage, was actually voting to fund Obamacare. That is dishonest. It’s also insane. The Tea Party gripe with Cantor is not that he helped cause this unnecessary and futile disaster for the party. They’re angry that he wasn’t committed enough to it.

On immigration, Brat bashes Cantor for working on the Kids Act, which is the Republican version of the Dream Act and which anti-reform conservatives hate because “amnesty.” Cantor is also guilty, per Brat, of describing immigration reform as a “top priority.”

The Tea Party anger at Cantor and the rest of the Republican leadership on immigration reform is a little amusing given that for all their lofty verbal commitments to passing reform, they’ve done little to make it a reality. Boehner will not allow a vote on the Senate immigration reform bill; he won’t even put the immigration “principles” the GOP leadership unveiled in January to a vote.

And the sad reality is that conservative support for candidacies like Brat’s make movement on issues like immigration reform that much more unlikely. If, by some chance, Brat actually succeeds in pulling a significant percentage of the vote against the House Republican leader, then he’ll have validated in the minds of Republicans that support for immigration reform – not voting for it, merely supporting it – is a great way to find yourself on the wrong end of a primary challenge.

The same principle applies for issues like the debt ceiling. Brat’s opposition to raising the debt ceiling is, in effect, a declaration that he does not believe the government should not be able to perform the basic function of paying interest on its debts. That’s crazy, but Republicans are being pushed in that direction by the fringe.

That’s the impact candidacies like Brat’s end up having on Republican politics. Even if he doesn’t win – and every indication is that he won’t -- he’ll have succeeded in shifting the “mainstream” of Republican and conservative ideology yet further to the right.

By Simon Maloy

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