I'm not here to talk about why Eric Cantor lost. Neither am I here to talk about what his loss to virtual unknown David Brat means, although I do think the always insightful Norm Ornstein is right on in connecting it to what he called the "new nihilism" on the hard right. What I want to do here is ask a simple question: What's next? Does right-wing radical David Brat speak for Republicans? This is the question that voters in the Virginia 7th congressional district will answer in November.
Given that the Virginia 7th went for Mitt Romney 57-42 just two years ago, Republican voters certainly can deliver the election to Brat, a man so extreme that, among the many other hard right positions he's taken, he called for gutting Social Security benefits (about 60 percent of self-identified conservatives oppose any cuts, with around a quarter of them supporting increased benefits) and drastically reducing education spending (he noted that "Socrates trained Plato on a rock. How much did that cost?"). And of course he'll repeal Obamacare (something only one in three voters wants to do). What Mr. Brat won't do is vote to raise the debt ceiling at any point over the next five years, even if that means our country defaults on its debt obligations and creates a "financial Armageddon." If there isn't a civil war within the Republican Party yet, there sure ought to be, and the 7th District is where sane Republicans need to make a stand.
Rep. Peter King (R-NY), one of a dwindling band of relative moderates within his party, is speaking along similar lines:
We cannot allow the Ted Cruz and Rand Paul forces to use this defeat of Eric Cantor as an opportunity for them to take over the party ... There is a real battle of ideas going on. There's a battle for the soul and future of the Republican Party. And all of us in the Republican Party have to take a side and fight hard in that war."
In a separate interview, King added: "Ted Cruz is a total nihilist, shutting down the government. That and Rand Paul's isolationism appeal to the lowest common denominator, which would make us a permanent minority in terms of presidential races." Rep. King also expressed concern to Greg Sargent that if the "Ted Cruz and Rand Paul wing" came to dominate the GOP -- something Brat's victory could help bring about -- it would "prevent us from being a national party."
Peter King is right. But are the anti-Ted Cruz Republicans actually willing to do something about it where it counts, in the Virginia 7th?
What do they need to do? They need to send Democrat Jack Trammell to Congress. What? Elect a Democrat? Yes, that's right. The time has come for the Republicans who agree with the Peter Kings of their party to do what Peter King himself, as a Republican congressional representative, could never even hint at, let alone call for publicly: vote for the Democrat.
And here's the thing: It's not impossible. Cantor won his last two general elections with under 60 percent of the vote, each time running against candidates (Rick Waugh and Wayne Powell) who had never before held office. Speaking very roughly, it would take a quarter of Romney-Cantor voters crossing the aisle to do the trick. David Brat's defeat of Eric Cantor was historic. Think of how historic it would be for the largely Republican district to then reject the extremist Brat in favor of Democrat Jack Trammell.
Tea party Republicans understand that, at least for now, non-extremist Republicans are their enemy. Their goal is to move the Republican Party as far to the right as they can, so that they can enact laws that reflect their radical views (see North Carolina, among other examples).
In order to do that, tea partiers keep running candidates to the right of Republican incumbents, no matter how right-wing those incumbents may be, and no matter if they end up losing some of those races (see Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, et. al.). To be clear, Eric Cantor was as conservative as they come, ideologically speaking, with a voting record on par with crazy climate denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). He was the right-winger among the House leadership. And, as I said earlier, this is no longer about Eric Cantor.
This is about whether there are enough Republicans who are willing to do what tea partiers have shown, time after time, they are willing to do. Just as tea partiers punish Republicans who aren't right wing enough, will the non-tea party Republicans ever stand up and punish Republicans who are too extreme, who truly are, like David Brat, off the deep end?
Because all the talk about the supposed Republican rebranding is really just window dressing until and unless Republican voters force their party to rebrand and reform by defeating a right-wing extremist in a red district. The tea party knows how to send a message. In the Virginia 7th, we'll find out in November if the rest of the Republican Party knows how to fight back.