It’s a bad week to be outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
His 13-year run as Virginia’s 13th district representative came to a shocking end when he lost to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat Tuesday night. I’ve heard that internal polling had Cantor up more than thirty points just before Election Day.
But it’s an even worse week to be an establishment Republican.
Even though mainstream Republican candidates have had a number of big successes – think Brad Byrne’s win in Alabama’s 1st Congressional district and Thom Tillis in the North Carolina GOP Senate primary – the resurgent power of the Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with.
Not only are Tea Party candidates winning in some cases like Cantor’s primary, but they are also serving another purpose: creating a dangerous divide within the GOP itself.
Cantor’s sudden and unexpected loss is very much reminiscent of the Tea Party wave that swept them into power in 2010. And it’s a clear, unambiguous sign that activist conservatives in the Republican party have a strong position that is not going away.
When we look at Cantor’s primary alongside victories for Tea Party backed Republicans in the top two runoff contests in Texas last month, there’s no reason to think that Tea Party activists and organizers are off base with their plans for a big summer rally.
Races in Mississippi, Kansas and Tennessee that should’ve been easy wins for the Republican establishment candidate are now closer than expected.
In Mississippi, for example, Sen. Thad Cochran is a nearly 40-year incumbent perceived as moderately conservative. He’s currently in a tight race with Tea Party challenger and state legislator Chris McDaniel.
The state’s primary election takes place later this month, and recent figures show McDaniel with a small three percent lead. Sarah Palin even visited Mississippi to endorse McDaniel and has recorded robocalls on his behalf.
The story is the same in other parts of the country.
To be sure, the unexpectedness of Cantor’s loss has shaken politicians whose careers have depended on the predictability of voting patters across the nation.
And while Brat’s upset speaks volumes about the division within the Republican Party between the establishment and the Tea Party, it highlights how particularly dangerous this election cycle could be for the Republican leadership strata.
It follows that even though Mitch McConnell handily won his primary 60-36 percent against Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin, a divided Republican party means that in a tight race McConnell can hardly afford any defections.
In Bevin’s concession speech, he didn’t back McConnell, but he said he has no intention “of supporting the Democratic platform over the Republican platform.”