WASHINGTON -- Eric Cantor lost Tuesday night to tea party-backed David Brat, but the roots of the historic upset can be traced to the early days of the Obama administration.
More than any other Republican leader, Cantor was aggressively committed to the strategy of all-out opposition to President Barack Obama's agenda across the board, dating to his inauguration. The House minority leader at the time, Cantor rallied the Republican conference to unanimously oppose the economic stimulus early in the president's first term, stunning Democrats and setting the stage for what would become a consistent pattern.
As the tea party rose across the country, Cantor was the Republican leader who embraced it most tightly, his presence a constant threat to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who regularly looked over his shoulder during negotiations. The tea party helped Republicans take the House in 2010, and fueled a government shutdown.
Yet the grassroots movement never fully embraced Cantor in return. And on Tuesday, the architect of the Party of No strategy had it turned against him.
Cantor came of age in Congress when Democrat Mark Warner was governor of Virginia, after having previously served as a member of the state's House of Delegates. Republicans made a popular budget deal with Warner that was credited with boosting the state's economy and turned Warner into one of the most popular Virginia politicians in a generation. Warner helped transform the Democratic brand in Virginia.
"What he observed from Mark Warner's bipartisan take was never let a Democrat negotiate a bipartisan deal, because you'll turn them into an unbeatable monster," said a former Democratic congressman who knows Cantor. "Warner became this leverage point for all these other Democrats in the state. Republicans were stuck always running against Warner."
Cantor, however, did not take his strategy to its logical extreme, and often helped bring along tea party votes for unpopular measures that needed to be passed to keep the government functioning. Indeed, Cantor was often the necessary link that bridged leadership and rank-and-file tea party members. "He's the one guy everyone relies on to get things done for them," said one Cantor ally.
Each time he twisted tea party arms, though, it cost him politically, raising suspicions among grassroots activists that Cantor was an impure conservative. On Tuesday night, the tea party said no.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Cantor had been a Virginia state delegate under Gov. Mark Warner. Cantor served as delegate prior to Warner's governorship.
Sign up below to get an email when Ryan Grim publishes a new story