RICHMOND, Va. - In an upset for the ages, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-most powerful man in the House, was dethroned Tuesday by a little-known, tea party-backed Republican primary challenger who rolled to victory on a wave of public anger over calls for looser immigration laws.
""This is a miracle from God that just happened," exulted David Brat, a political science professor as his victory became clear in the congressional district around Richmond.
Speaking to downcast supporters, Cantor conceded, "Obviously we came up short."
The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for tea party forces, although they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and hope State Sen. Chris McDaniel can prevail then.
Cantor's defeat was the first primary setback for a leader in Congress in recent years. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both lost their seats at the polls in the past two decades, but they fell to Republicans, not to primary challengers.
The outcome may well mark the end of Cantor's political career, but its impact on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clearer still. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Cantor's repudiation was complete in an area that first sent him to Congress in 2000, even though he had support from establishment groups that backed him.
With votes counted in 99 percent of the precincts, 64,418 votes were cast, roughly a 37 percent increase over two years ago.
Despite that, Cantor polled fewer votes than he did in 2012 - 28,631 this time, compared with 37,369 then.
Jay S. Poole, a Cantor volunteer, said Brat tapped into widespread frustration among voters about the gridlock in Washington and issues such as immigration. "I can't tell you how amazing this is to me," Poole said.
Much of the campaign centered on immigration, where critics on both sides of the debate have recently taken aim at Cantor. Brat accused him of being a top cheerleader for "amnesty" for immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally. Cantor responded forcefully by boasting in mailers of blocking Senate plans "to give illegal aliens amnesty."
It was a change in tone for Cantor, who has repeatedly voiced support for giving citizenship to certain immigrants brought illegally to the country as children. Cantor and House GOP leaders have advocated a step-by-step approach, rather than the comprehensive bill backed by the Senate - but were persistently vague on the details.
Last month, a feisty crowd of Brat supporters booed Cantor in front of his family at a local party convention.
"If I had my way, I wish everybody in Congress and the Senate would be gone and we would start fresh," said Brat voter Henry Moriconi, 70, of Henrico County, who expressed frustration that Congress has been unable to confront issues such as the federal deficit.
Brat teaches at Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school north of Richmond. He raised just over $200,000 for his campaign, while Cantor spent more than $1 million in April and May alone to try to beat back his challenge.
Washington-based groups also spent heavily in the race. The American Chemistry Council, whose members include many blue chip companies, spent more than $300,000 on TV ads promoting Cantor in the group's only independent expenditure so far this election year. Political arms of the American College of Radiology, the National Rifle Association and the National Association of Realtors also spent money on ads to promote Cantor.
Brat offset the cash disadvantage with endorsements from conservative activists like radio host Laura Ingraham and with help from local tea party activists angry at Cantor.
"Eric Cantor's loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment," said ForAmerica Chairman Brent Bozell, a conservative leader who advises several tea party groups. "The grassroots is in revolt and marching."
Associated Press writers David Pace and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report. Espo reported from Washington.
Dave Brat speaks to supporters after defeating Republican Congressman Eric Cantor in Tuesday’s Republican primary for the 7th Congressional District in Virginia.×
Notice about comments: