Speed Reads


Eric Cantor's demise is a whodunit with two suspects: the Tea Party and Eric Cantor

The political class has finally begun to make sense of Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) out-of-nowhere primary defeat to economics professor David Brat. Two principal subjects have emerged: the Tea Party and Cantor himself.

In the narrative involving the former — Tea Party being shorthand here for very conservative voters — Cantor started off as a Tea Party spearhead who led a strategy of total opposition to President Obama that culminated victoriously in Republicans taking the House in 2010. Once Cantor was in power, however, he had to make the kind of decisions (like not defaulting on the country's debt) that failed to satisfy the base's unslakable thirst for total warfare. For versions of this story, see Dave Weigel at Slate and Brian Beutler at The New Republic.

The narrative that Republicans themselves prefer is that Cantor was a soulless ladder-climber who had completely lost touch with his constituents in Virginia's 7th District. They point to the fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham handily won his primary in South Carolina despite being one of the more moderate Republicans out there, and that Cantor tellingly spent Election Day at a Starbucks in D.C. hobnobbing with corporate lobbyists — not in his hometown. Republicans prefer this storyline because it is the one that gives them a prayer of uniting their excitable base with a more moderate platform that can actually win national elections.

So which one did Cantor in? The answer, most likely, is a bit of both. The problem for Republicans is that no figure at a national level has so far been able to thread this needle, and Cantor's demise is some pretty strong evidence that it may not even be possible.