The big news this morning is that Eric Cantor, the US House of Representatives majority leader – that is, number two in the House Republican hierarchy, after speaker John Boehner – has been defeated in his party’s primary for his central Virginia district. Challenger David Brat took 55.5% of the vote to Cantor’s 44.5%, a margin of more than 7,000 votes.

I certainly didn’t see this coming, but I’m consoled by the fact that no-one else seems to have either. This is said to be the first time since the position was created in 1899 that a majority leader has lost in a primary.

Cantor had often been the conservative foil to Boehner’s slightly more conciliatory approach, but such is the craziness of the Republican Party that he was attacked for not having been conservative enough. Brat was supported by the “tea party” movement, who, despite persistent media claims that they are motivated by such issues as taxes, debt or constitutionalism, were energised particularly by Cantor’s (lukewarm) support for immigration reform.

Spare a thought here for the depth of philosophical confusion that can produce a candidate who claims to be inspired by Ayn Rand and the “case for human freedom and free markets” but whose trademark issues are opposition to immigration and support for default on government debt.

Among other things, the result is a lesson in the failure of appeasement, or of falling between two stools. Having made his name as a firebrand, Cantor in the last year or two had drawn closer to Boehner and tried to show a greater degree of responsibility. The result was that he was trusted by neither side: the crazies suspected him of having become part of the hated establishment, but there was never going to be any countervailing groundswell of moderate support.

Contrast Lindsey Graham, one of the last (relative) Republican moderates in the Senate, who cruised to victory in South Carolina with 56.6% of the vote against six opponents, and whose campaign was based on an unapologetic rejection of extremism. Cantor’s defeat has taken pundits by surprise precisely because in other respects the primary season looked as if the pendulum was swinging back towards sanity.

The 7th district is safe Republican, so Brat will no doubt find himself in Washington next year. And with the low turnout that’s a mark of mid-term elections, all the betting is that the Republicans, whatever candidate issues they have, will hold onto control of the House. But they’ll need to find a new majority leader.


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