House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his GOP Virginia primary race Tuesday night in a stunning upset to Tea Party-backed challenger Dave Brat.
Brat, an economics professor and political novice, had latched onto the increasingly hot-button issue of immigration and accused Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the GOP-led House, of supporting immigration legislation that would give “amnesty” to millions of people living illegally in the United States.
Cantor conceded defeat about an hour after defeat and the Tea Party’s biggest upset victory of 2014 — thanking volunteers, supporters and campaign staffers.
“It’s disappointing,” he told a small crowd in Richmond. “But I believe in this country. I believe there is opportunity around the next corner.”
He added, “Serving you as the 7th District congressman and having the privilege of being the majority leader has been the highest honor of my life.”
In the closing weeks of the race, Bratt argued the seven-term congressman’s support for legal status for children who have illegally entered the country fueled the problem of children from Central America pouring across the southern border, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Cantor, considered next in line to take over for House Speaker John Boehner, tried to respond forcefully by boasting in mailers of blocking Senate plans “to give illegal aliens amnesty.”
Cantor and other House Republican leaders had advocating a more step-by-step approach to immigration reform that would in part begin with tighter border security, instead of the comprehensive bill backed by the Senate.
Brat said Cantor, who was first elected in 2000 and has ties to Tea Party-backed lawmakers in Congress, has spent too much time in Washington and lost touch with the conservative base in his Richmond-area district.
“It’s hard to represent people when you haven’t met them,” said Brat, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school north of Richmond.
Despite the attacks, Cantor had appeared well positioned for reelection in his 7th congressional District seat.
The most recent campaign finance reports show he spent more than $1 million in April and May but still has more than $1.5 million in the bank.
Brat, by contrast, raised just more than $200,000 for his campaign, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
Big business, which supports immigration reform, and other groups also spent heavily to help Cantor.
The American Chemistry Council, whose members include many blue chip companies, spent more than $300,000 on TV ads promoting Cantor. And the political arms of the American College of Radiology, the National Rifle Association and the National Association of Realtors had five-figure independent spending to promote Cantor.
Bratt helped offset the cash disadvantage with endorsements from conservative activists, like radio host Laura Ingraham, and with help from Tea Party activists angry at Cantor.
Cantor, a former state legislator, was elected to Congress in 2000. He became majority leader in 2011.
Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report