WASHINGTON – The universal reaction to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss Tuesday night was a combination of shock and stunned disbelief. But it was as much a reflection of the status quo within a divided Republican Party, a condition that will continue to roil the GOP and challenge party leaders into the future.
There are no doubt particular reasons why Cantor, R-Va., lost his Virginia primary to conservative David Brat in one of the biggest upsets in memory. Over the next few days, the majority leader, his team and other GOP strategists will try to sort through the rubble to make sense of what made no sense Tuesday night.
At its core, the outcome meant Cantor had lost touch with his constituents. But why?
In some ways, the details of the answer are a sideshow to the bigger issues that confront the party. A continuing conflict has played out time and again over the past five years with the rise of the tea party, keeping the GOP in an unsettled state. These issues are not going away soon.
The party is divided in many ways. There is the establishment wing, which may better be called the business wing. There is the tea party wing, which may be better called the populist, conservative, grass-roots insurgency. There is a House wing and a Senate wing, and they don't always see the world the same way.
And in the coming months, there will be a presidential candidate wing, and those who seek to join it will have the biggest challenges of all in trying to harmonize the fractious factions.
The party is divided over tone and style. Just how confrontational should or must the party be? When is compromise acceptable? At a time when many conservatives see President Barack Obama and the Democrats as a threat to the country's very foundations, how much leeway do party leaders have trying to govern cooperatively with the opposition? So far, party leaders have been on a short leash.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has been bedeviled by this problem ever since his party took control of the House in 2010, exercising his powers carefully and often defensively and at times being led by the demands of hardliners.
Cantor was the lieutenant who was thought to have the better antennae for the tea party wing. So much for that assumption.
The party is split by more than this, however, as conservative activists point out. Suggestions that the GOP is divided more stylistically than substantively draw quick rebukes from activists on the right, who point to any number of issues that have fractured the congressional party over the past few years.
One of the biggest is immigration. Cantor's defeat seemingly reflects anger among conservatives over proposed comprehensive immigration reform.
The issue has caused much anguish among party leaders, many of whom believe it is in the party's best long-term interests to enact legislation as a first step toward competing for the support of Hispanic voters. And it continues to animate and energize conservative grass-roots activists who believe that lawbreaking should be treated as such, some of whom fear the implications of the country's growing diversification.
But the anger over immigration plays out unevenly. On the night that Cantor lost, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., romped to victory in his primary, winning 56 percent of the vote in a multicandidate field and avoiding a runoff. Graham has been one of the most prominent advocates for comprehensive immigration reform in the GOP. Why he escaped the wrath of the anti-immigration activists and Cantor did not contributed to the confusion about what happened in Virginia on Tuesday.
All through the spring, there have been suggestions – fueled in part by the media – that the Republicans were engaged in a climactic battle between tea party insurgents and the establishment. It has played out week by week, in North Carolina, in Nebraska, in Kentucky, in Mississippi, in Texas and now in Virginia and South Carolina. There are more to come.
Certainly the establishment has won far more than it has lost in these direct confrontations. But it has been by no means a clean sweep or a clear vanquishing of what is called the tea party wing.
For every victory by someone like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., there has been a good moment for the tea party, whether it be the victory of Ben Sasse in the GOP Senate primary in Nebraska or the virtual takeover of the Texas Republican Party by tea party sensibilities.
This has been said many times: A party big enough to aspire to becoming a majority is a coalition of people and groups that don't always see eye to eye. Reconciling those differences is the challenge and the obligation of party leaders. Rarely is that possible without occupying the White House, and that has become more and more obvious for the Republican Party in the past few years.