House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning 12-point defeat to a relatively unknown primary challenger has sparked concern among Tea Party activists who have conducted a long-running battle with the GOP establishment:
Will Dave Brat, the 52-year-old economics professor who upset Cantor, be left to fend for himself, or will the party unite behind him?
It's a touchy question, given the raw feelings that remain after the 2013 gubernatorial race, in which many activists felt party leaders were lukewarm at best in their support of nominee Ken Cuccinelli, who narrowly lost to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
To put it plainly: The GOP establishment will likely work with Brat, but its support won’t be over-the-top.
“The establishment will give Brat a pat on the head and work with him. It’ll be with polite disdain. They’ll make sure they hold that district,” RedState’s Erick Erickson told the Washington Examiner.
“The establishment will try to co-opt Brat, but they’ll probably find out that he can’t be co-opted. They won’t care for that, but they will not try to actively defeat him,” he said. “Any attempt to defeat Brat will mobilize grassroots groups against GOP incumbents, including [John] Boehner in Ohio and [Thad] Cochran in Mississippi. The establishment doesn’t want that.”
Erickson, an outspoken supporter of the Tea Party, said he is confident that the GOP will pay Brat lip service, but it likely won’t offer him any real support. In fact, he added, he suspects there are some within the Republican Party who secretly want Brat to lose so that they can have a “told you so” moment.
The National Republican Congressional Committee “will do the bare minimum to support Brat. Other groups and Republican leaders will do the same,” he said. “But that’s about it.”
Separately, a Republican message consultant agreed with Erickson that GOP support for Brat would likely be muted. However, he said, there’s good reason for this: There’s no great need to pour money into that district.
“This will be Brat’s race if he doesn’t make some giant fundamental error,” strategist Rick Wilson told the Washington Examiner. “The National Republican Congressional Committee will treat this like any other seat. Brat’s the party nominee. He’ll get the support, but this district is safely Republican.
“Democrats aren’t going to deploy a bunch on money on this seat,” he said. “So the NRCC won’t have to deploy a lot of money. They’ll put in what’s expected of that district. No more no less.”
Asked if he thinks Republican leaders will try to scuttle Brat’s campaign efforts, Wilson said no.
“If Republican leadership acts like spiteful b----es, then they won’t be in leadership positions much longer,” he said. “If they do have a problem with losing Cantor, they’ll wait until after the midterms to work it out between themselves.”
A Virginia Republican organizer in a phone call with the Examiner echoed Wilson’s sentiments.
“The leadership won't need to put much behind Brat because that district — gerrymandered made-to-order for Cantor — won't be going blue,” the organizer said.
The establishment will “rather let this loss go quietly into the night … rather than beclown themselves grilling and eating Brat out of spite.”
Brat will most certainly win his election, the organizer continued, and will probably go on to be a “nameless backbencher” in Congress, meaning GOP leadership stands to gain nothing by scuttling his campaign efforts.
Still, another major question remains: With millions of dollars and name recognition, how did Cantor lose so badly to Brat?
The Republican organizer, who is on the ground in Virginia, offered some insight.
“I think immigration played a huge roll, but without the more important component of Cantor being missing in his district, it wouldn't have been enough to oust him,” he said. “His campaign was essentially $600,000 in mailers reminding voters he wasn't for ‘amnesty.’ ”
“You can't win tight-knit Central Virginia like that. You have to show up, shake hands, pretend you remember and care about your constituents,” he added. “So, when you go missing, your enemies will start to organize. Immigration was a shot of fuel to the fire that was already burning against him.”
When asked for comment about its plans to support Brat, the NRCC responded by sending the following statement from the group’s chairman, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon:
“Eric Cantor has been a steadfast leader for our party, and a great friend and mentor for so many House Republicans. I know Eric will continue to lead on the issues he cares so deeply about.”