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Few tears are shed for Eric Cantor [Commentary]

The stunning primary loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the first ever suffered by any congressional leader of either party, may well reflect his Virginia constituents' souring toward his personal hubris more than any cosmic policy issue.

Mr. Cantor's conspicuous focus on national political aspirations, with himself widely cast as the heir apparent to beleaguered House Speaker John Boehner, obviously didn't sit well with the folks back home. Their votes were a reminder to him of Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill's old adage that "All politics is local."

Rather than employing shoe leather back home, Cantor relied on his fat campaign treasury amassed from Wall Street and other big givers to run negative radio and television ads against his challenger, little-known college professor David Brat. But they served chiefly to give Mr. Brat visibility he hadn't had before, along with boosts from conservative airwave cheerleaders.

In an early White House confrontation on national television, Mr. Cantor challenged newly elected President Barack Obama, who curtly lectured him that "elections have consequences" and that he had won. In that exchange, Mr. Cantor came off as a bit too big for his britches.

In playing national leader while voters in his district watched from afar, he apparently built up the animosity that finally did him in. Mr. Cantor's mild efforts to offer some Republican response to pressure from Hispanic voters for immigration reform were seized on by Mr. Brat and supporters, who stuck the killer label of "amnesty" on him and predictably fired up tea party critics. But that argument hadn't been successful in other 2014 primaries, most recently in Sen. Lindsey Graham's renomination in South Carolina despite his strong advocacy for immigration reform.

On primary night in Virginia and in Washington, few tears seemed to be shed for Mr. Cantor. Several colleagues, including House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, next in the party pecking order to replace him, began seeking support to fill the vacancy, even before Mr. Cantor announced his intent to resign his leadership post. A divisive fight looms.

As for the Democrats, from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on down they all said little and let the opposition party stew in its own juices. They didn't have to say anything to reinforce their obvious glee to see the obnoxious Mr. Cantor go, not even warning him not to let the door hit him in the behind on the way out.

For the next few days at least, the House Republicans will have their own mess to clean up, instead of just continuing the Obama-bashing that has been their choice occupation ever since taking control of the House in 2010. The early optimism of GOP moderates that they had at last tied a can on the tea party in this year's primaries was cooled off by Mr. Cantor's defeat, although Mr. Brat low-balled tea party support in his upset victory.

It seems uncertain that the political demise of Eric Cantor will have much to do with the outcome of the November congressional elections, in which the Republicans remain favored to hold onto the House and possibly regain control of the Senate. But Democrats can hope his defeat will at least underscore the image of the Grand Old Party as a house in disorder.

In most congressional races, however, incumbents are routinely returned to office. Most don't have the national notoriety that contributed to Mr. Cantor's undoing. The more critical question raised by his defeat is whether the insurgent conservatives and the tea party will gain new energy and support in their fight against the party's establishment.

Looking ahead to 2016, President Obama no longer will be on the ballot as a unifying force for Republicans, and the Democrats likely will be more united than they are now if Hillary Clinton is their nominee. Mr. Cantor's loss is evidence that the internal split over the GOP leadership and its conservative purity will continue into the next presidential election, whatever the outcome of the midterm elections.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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