By Lynn R. Mitchell
The headline says it all. People are scratching their heads at the challenge by a frenzied anti-Cantor group in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District. Reporter Matt Bai is baffled (see The tea party is after Cantor. Seriously.):
In a lot of ways, Dave Brat is your typical tea party-style insurgent running in a Republican primary this year. He’s an economics professor at a tiny college, a striped-tie, free market enthusiast who decries debt and immigration. He has the backing of the crankiest conservative bloggers and radio hosts, one of whom, Laura Ingraham, appeared with him at a rally this week.
But Brat isn’t running to unseat some mush-ball moderate or no-name state legislator backed by the local chamber of commerce. No, Brat’s opponent in next Tuesday’s primary is Eric Cantor, the congressman from Virginia’s 7th District and the second most powerful Republican in the House. Which highlights a question that’s becoming more germane as this season of Republican disunion drags on:
Just how conservative do you have to be before these conservative activists will leave you alone?
As anti-Cantor forces booed and jeered while the Congressman tried to address the 7th Congressional District delegates in May, Cantor talked about meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House concerning Obamacare, holding the 2,000 pages of the newly-enacted law and asking him to explain it. The president could not do so but Cantor’s confrontation of the president caused him to become a target to the White House with frequent visits to Cantor’s back yard in Richmond.
With that in mind, Bai continued:
I mean, if the needling Cantor isn’t Barack Obama’s least favorite Republican on the Hill, he’s certainly vying for the title. It was Cantor, you may recall, who forcibly put the brakes on John Boehner when the speaker was edging close to a comprehensive budget deal with the White House in 2011, because he couldn’t stomach $1 trillion-plus in new revenue. He distinguished himself, during those negotiations, as the one guy in the room who didn’t want a deal and who couldn’t be bothered to disguise his contempt for the president.
Until recently, anyway, Cantor was known around Washington as the tea party’s guy in leadership, a bridge between the pragmatic old guard (who found him a tick more tolerable than the other young punks) and the new ideologues (who hoped he might rise up and supplant Boehner as speaker).
And therein is the problem. It would appear that the zealots who are anti-establishment activists demand 100% lock-step following from elected officials as well as grassroots.
Now they are stuck on immigration — illegal and, apparently, legal.
But let’s not trifle with all this wearying reality. Instead, let’s look on Dave Brat’s website, which features a photo of Obama and Cantor sharing a heartfelt moment as they emerge from the House chamber together, like a couple of newlyweds in Utah. The site says Cantor “distorts the free market” and has “embraced big government.”
Brat expanded on this critique when we spoke on the phone a few days ago. He told me Cantor had thrown his weight behind comprehensive immigration reform, refused to defund the president’s health care plan and backed down on reducing spending and debt. “In the past few years, Eric has shifted dramatically, and that’s the only way to look at it,” Brat told me.
Well, maybe not the only way. Yes, Cantor declared himself open to a reform in the immigration system that would offer a path to citizenship for children who have spent their lives here, but, true to form, he opposed the only bipartisan bill that had a chance of passing. He has led House Republicans in voting no fewer than six times to defund the health care law (good luck with that), not to mention a few dozen other votes to strip various provisions.
Working for compromise and working with others is not “shifting dramatically” but, rather, leadership especially at a time when the county is so politically polarized. Thursday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion said it well:
Immigration hawks (those are the folks whose every third word is “amnesty”) insist they do not object to immigration per se — only the illegal kind. The credibility of that claim has taken some hits recently.
For instance: In a radio interview the other day, 7 th District congressional candidate David Brat, who is challenging Eric Cantor for the Republican nomination, suggested the U.S. should not admit “high skilled Ph.D.s and masters.” He said such people should remain in their native countries. Brat emphatically does not want to let low-skilled border-crossers stay, either — and he objects to what he considers a push by business interests to import cheap labor through legal channels as well.
If you want to raise barriers against both high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants, who’s left?
Shaun Kenney hasn’t escaped their wrath either:
Shaun Kenney, the new executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, has caught flak in radio ads and from right-wing blogs over his ostensibly soft views on immigration. One recent spot accused Kenney of not only supporting amnesty, but also of wanting to “bring in millions more immigrant workers to take jobs and keep Virginia wages low.”
That’s not a shot at illegal immigration. That’s a shot at the legal kind.
From a purely mercenary perspective, such attacks are political poison.
It all boils down to Matt Bai’s closing comment:
If Eric Cantor isn’t anti-government, anti-spending, anti-Obama enough to insulate himself from grass-roots rebellion, then you’ve got to ask yourself: Who is?