WASHINGTON -- The demise of the Tea Party has been greatly exaggerated.
The anti-establishment force within the GOP was strong enough Tuesday to oust House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning upset by a political newcomer, Randolph-Macon College economics professor Dave Brat.
Cantor said Tuesday that serving in Congress and as majority leader "has been one of the highest honors of my life" and that he would continue to promote the conservative cause. "It's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us," he said.
Cantor, the second-most powerful House leader, is the highest-ranking Republican to lose renomination to a Tea Party challenger since the movement rose to prominence in 2010. It is likely to go down as one of the most stunning primary defeats in congressional history.
The last major upset of a sitting House leader was in 1994, when Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., lost in the general election to Republican George Nethercutt.
Brat entered the race in January pledging to be "Eric Cantor's term limit." He vowed to fight for "real, conservative, free-market change" and voiced opposition to a bipartisan budget deal passed by Congress in December. He also opposed an effort by some in the GOP to overhaul federal immigration laws.
"Brat ran an aggressive campaign with strong Tea Party support and perhaps some voters felt that Cantor was not doing enough for those in his home district," said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who resides in Cantor's district.
David Wasserman, an elections expert with the non-partisan Cook Political Report, wrote an analysis Tuesday evening: "Cantor's leadership position, unwillingness to prolong last October's government shutdown, far-fetched attacks on Brat, and stylistic clash with Virginia's gun-owning, very conservative 7th (district) all played a role in the 'perfect storm' of base anger that engulfed him."
In a warning sign of Tea Party discontent in Cantor's Richmond-based district, activists booed and heckled Cantor during a party convention in May. Cantor had invested nearly $1 million into the primary, running television ads and sending mailers attacking the underfunded and little known Brat.
Virginia has a "sore loser" law that prevents him from running as an independent candidate. Brat will face Democratic nominee Jack Trammell, who is also a Randolph-Macon professor. The district is heavily conservative and the Republican will be favored to win.
The Tea Party had failed to muster many victories so far in the 2014 midterms, but Cantor's defeat could reinvigorate the debate over deep divisions within the Republican Party. Tea Party activists have also helped Mississippi GOP candidate Chris McDaniel into a competitive June 24 run-off against incumbent GOP Sen. Thad Cochran. Milton Wolf, a Tea Party candidate challenging Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, issued a one-line statement Tuesday warning that Cantor "isn't the only incumbent" who is going to lose this year.
In contrast, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham won a seven-way primary Tuesday, surpassing the 50% threshold to win the nomination and avoid a run-off contest. Graham has long been a target of Tea Party ire, in part because of his effort to enact immigration reform.
Cantor, 51, was first elected to Congress in 2001 and became the majority leader in 2011. He is the only Jewish Republican in the U.S. House. Long heralded as a rising GOP star, Cantor is a prodigious fundraiser and was widely viewed as the likeliest contender to become the next House speaker.
House leadership had not commented on Cantor's loss late Tuesday.
His loss scrambles the House calendar. The majority leader is tasked with coordinating the House agenda, which is particularly sensitive in an election year. Cantor's ability to lead the House GOP Conference could be undermined by his Tuesday defeat, although Republicans are still favored to maintain control come November.