Every so often, the American political world is turned upside down. Last night was one of those moments, as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was "primaried" out of a job. Nobody (including me) predicted this upset. Today, pundits are falling all over themselves to come up with an appropriate metaphor for the magnitude of Cantor's loss on the political scene. Living in California as I do, I'm going to go with earthquake terminology: this was a massive and cataclysmic temblor for Republicans -- the equivalent of about a 9.0 on the political Richter scale.
Snap judgments abound today in the chattering classes, who are all trying to figure out "what it all means" -- what message the voters in Cantor's district really meant to send in the voting booth. Cantor, according to just a sampling of these quick reactions, was "not conservative enough," or "got beaten by the Tea Party," or "was out of touch with his district" (mostly by "paying too much attention to national politics at the expense of local politics"), or was "just too unlikeable and self-serving," or even "was Jewish." Take your choice -- there are proponents of all of these arguments (and far more) out there in the media right now, vying for position. I guess my favorite storyline so far is the one crediting Ben "Cooter" Jones with orchestrating a movement of Democratic voters to cause mischief in the Republican primary by ousting Cantor (no hard data has either proven or disproven this assertion, to date, I should note).
There is what could be called a "mainstream" opinion, though, which will likely become the accepted reading of Cantor's loss: that it was all due to his perceived support for immigration reform. Cantor's opponent hammered him on the immigration issue, even though Cantor was not exactly leading the charge in Congress for immigration reform -- which the hardcore Republicans insist is nothing short of "amnesty." But whatever you choose to believe was the reason for this political earthquake, it happened. It is more important now to comb the wreckage and try to predict what it will mean for the future than it is to squabble about why it happened where it did.
The aftershocks could be big. The biggest has already happened, as Cantor announced he will be resigning his leadership position in July. The race among House Republicans to replace him has already begun in earnest. The guy who has the seniority, however, is somewhat moderate and hails from the blue state of California. Conservative Republicans have already started pushing for an authentic "red state Republican" to take over -- preferably someone acceptable to the Tea Party. Who wins this struggle may set the direction for the House until 2017. Speaker John Boehner is rumored to be thinking about stepping down from his own leadership post, so whoever wins Cantor's Majority Leader position could be the frontrunner to replace Boehner as early as this Christmas. This should give pause to Democrats who are now reveling in schadenfreude over Cantor's loss (and who would also love to see the last of John Boehner) -- be careful what you wish for, because it might actually be much worse than what you've got now (as hard as that may be for some to believe).
The divisions within the Republican Party are now openly on display for all to see. Some folks (myself included) have been calling it a "civil war" within the party for years now. Yesterday's primary, however, isn't really as clear-cut as some now believe. Dave Brat, the man who defeated Cantor for the Republican nomination, is described as a Tea Partier by just about everyone. But he won his election without any monetary support from the big national Tea Party organizations -- showing how even the Tea Party's ranks are still split between groups like the Tea Party Express and the grassroots that gave birth to the original Tea Party movement. Brat's victory was monumental for a number of reasons, but the biggest is probably the disparity in spending. Cantor outspent Brat by something like 25-to-1, and yet he still lost. This should give pause to everyone who assumes that money automatically wins all political races. Sometimes it doesn't matter how much money was spent, because at times the voters just tune out a candidate's message -- no matter how many times they hear it.
In the grand scheme of things, one House district going from a very conservative Republican to an ultra-conservative Republican shouldn't change the political calculus in Washington all that much. It is, after all, only one seat among 435. Brat has to be seen as the heavy favorite for November, since the district was drawn to be a safe Republican stronghold. Barring any monumental gaffes on the campaign trail (always a possibility, of course), the seat is still likely to be Republican when the next Congress is sworn in. Democrats, while enthusiastic about Cantor's defeat, shouldn't expect to pick up his seat -- meaning that what they are now celebrating could be nothing short of the House becoming even more conservative and Tea Party than it already is.
One of the lessons of Cantor's political demise might revolve around the whole question of gerrymandering. This is the practice (which has existed since the earliest days of American government) of drawing insanely-complicated House districts to assure one party controls as many seats in a given state as possible. The problem with doing so, however, is that when you successfully concentrate one party's voters into a district, those voters may wind up being more rabidly ideological than the politician who represents them. In other words, successful gerrymandering will lead to more career politicians of your party getting primaried out of office.
This lesson won't be germane until 2020 (or even the 2022 election cycle, really), when the next round of redistricting happens. Republicans are pretty much stuck with the maps they drew after the 2010 census. This means that the possibility of Tea Partiers successfully winning primaries against sitting Republican politicians is still a looming threat. This will have ramifications in 2016. The entire civil war between the Tea Party and the Establishment Republicans will still rage on for the next two years -- and Republican House members will be even less likely to cast "impure" votes on issues the Tea Party holds dear. This is a recipe for even more gridlock, right up to the 2016 presidential election.
This is also where some huge aftershocks of Cantor's loss may be felt -- in the Republican field for the 2016 presidential nomination. If I were Jeb Bush, just to pick the easiest example, I would be seriously rethinking the chances of a presidential run right about now. Bush has said some reasonable things about immigration reform -- much more reasonable than anything Cantor ever said, in fact -- which could almost automatically disqualify him from the running in all the 2016 Republican primaries. With the House veering right in a desperate effort to fend off 2016 primary challenges from Tea Partiers, it will be driving the conversation about the direction of the Republican Party as a whole, leading into the 2016 contest. Republican presidential candidates will have to address whatever issues the House votes on, and they will be terrified of being labeled impure by the Tea Partiers. We already saw this in the 2012 race, where Mitt Romney was forced into taking far-right positions he later unsuccessfully tried to walk back (or "Etch-A-Sketch" from everyone's memory) during the general election. This will become more pronounced in the 2016 race, which may make it much easier for a Democrat to win the election. It would be ironic indeed if Cantor's loss were a big contributing factor in Hillary Clinton's victory, to put this another way.
The biggest aftershock, though, will be complete and utter inaction on immigration reform -- for years to come. The chances of the House voting on any meaningful immigration reform this year were already on life support, and they have now completely flatlined. Perception becomes reality in the world of Washington -- it won't matter if political scientists later prove that the voters in Cantor's district didn't really care that much about immigration in the voting booth, because it has already become inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom: Cantor lost because of immigration. Whether this is true or not is really immaterial at this point, because Republicans in Congress already believe it to be true -- and that's what really matters. That's all it takes for them to make the decision not to hold any votes on any immigration reform at all, ever. Democrats could offer up a bill which stated that all immigrants who ever receive citizenship will automatically count as Republican votes in all elections for the rest of their lives, and Republicans would still never allow it to be voted on in the House. Any bill with the word "immigration" in it will automatically become "amnesty" to the Tea Party, and any remaining reasonable Republicans in the House will cower in fear rather than publicly vote on it.
This won't just be for the rest of this year, either. Immigration reform is likely dead until at least 2017. The Republican Party is not going to be forced to address the issue at all until they see the demographic breakdown of the next presidential vote. In 2012, over 70 percent of Latinos voted Democratic. In 2016, that number will likely be even higher. If it tops 80 (or even 90) percent, then Republicans will have the choice of moving on meaningful immigration reform or kissing their hopes of ever taking the White House again a bittersweet goodbye, for the foreseeable future. But it's going to take actually seeing that vote breakdown before the Republican Party is ever going to act on immigration reform -- that's pretty easy to see, at this point.
Eric Cantor is now the first House Majority Leader in history (since the position was created in 1899) to lose his primary election. The message this sends to other Republicans in Congress (both House and Senate) is that this can happen to anyone. The fear this is going to create may become all-encompassing in the House, and possibly even the Senate (if Republicans win control of the chamber this November). The Tea Party sword hanging over their heads is now plain to see. Eric Cantor annoyed the Tea Party not just on immigration, but because he voted a few times to avoid the collapse of the federal budget, too. This does not bode well for the next few years -- especially if John Boehner does retire from leadership after the election is over. If the Tea Party gets one of their own in the Majority Leader spot who then succeeds Boehner as Speaker of the House, then we're going to look back on Boehner's time in office as the last period when anything got done in Washington (as laughable as that may sound, now). Even if Boehner does keep his gavel, he's going to have a much tougher time herding the House Republican cats for the next two years. Because in a House dominated by the fear of Tea Party primary opponents, the word "compromise" is going to completely cease to exist.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant
Become a fan of Chris on The Huffington Post