On Tuesday, voters in Virginia’s 7th congressional district deemed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) just not conservative enough for re-election. Challenger David Brat, a little-known economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, handed Cantor a stunning 56 to 44 percent defeat in the Republican primary, and is now being touted as the Tea Party’s best underdog story.
Given Cantor’s long record as a hard-hitting right-winger, however, one must wonder how extreme you have to be to win GOP support these days.
A member of the House since 2001, Cantor has long represented the far right’s interests in Congress. His name became almost synonymous with ultra-conservatism and, in many ways, Cantor paved the way for the Tea Party’s rise. And while Brat is now being heralded as the “Tea Party candidate,” and Tea Party groups are celebrating Cantor’s defeat, they seem to be forgetting that the man they call a “moderate” was a member of the Tea Party before the Tea Party was cool.
In fact, a walk down memory lane shows that when it comes to being conservative, it’s hard to outflank Cantor. Now that his reign as majority leader is coming to an end, let’s revisit some of Cantor’s most memorable right-wing moments — which still failed to land him another term in Congress.
The Grand Bargain
In an interview with Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker, Cantor boasted that it was a “fair assessment” to say he was a driving force behind the collapse of the 2011 “grand bargain” negotiations. Although budget talks had dominated politics that year, Cantor successfully convinced House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to pull out of discussions with President Obama and reject his offer to make significant spending cuts to the federal budget. Even with a government shutdown on the horizon, Cantor urged Boehner to refuse Obama’s offer to cut social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, and reduce government spending by about $300 billion over 10 years.
Cantor bragged that his influence ultimately derailed the deal that could have avoided sequestration and sidestepped the constant threat of fiscal crisis that now plagues the federal government. Why did he do it? Cantor hoped to use the budget crisis to his political advantage, and told Lizza that he wanted to “have it out” with Obama during the 2012 election. Considering that Obama won re-election, that didn’t exactly work out in Cantor’s favor.
Extending The Government Shutdown
In another display of stubborn, backhanded politics, Cantor played a critical role in prolonging the 2013 government shutdown, which Tea Partiers vainly hoped would lead to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. On the eve of the shutdown, the House Rules Committee made Cantor the only member of the House with the power to call a vote on a “clean” funding bill that would allow the government to continue operations.
This meant Cantor, quite literally, was the one thing standing in the way of ending the government shutdown. And Cantor did not move. This continued resistance was particularly detrimental to Virginians; the commonwealth contains a high number of federal employees (185,000 at the time), and is home to many veterans whose benefits were delayed by the government shutdown. Moreover, federal spending comprised around a third of the state’s economy, which Cantor persistently ignored as he stood his ground.
Refusing Disaster Relief
In another slight against his home state, Cantor has consistently opposed disaster relief funds, insisting that such aid would have to be balanced by federal spending cuts in other sectors. Cantor voted in 2004 and 2011 to refuse to allocate funds for disaster relief.
This was particularly startling in 2011, when tornadoes had just decimated Joplin, Missouri, and an earthquake — whose epicenter was located in Cantor’s own district — had just shaken Virginia. According to an estimate by Standard & Poor’s, the 2013 government shutdown (which was spearheaded and perpetuated by Cantor) cost the United States $24 billion. But Cantor couldn’t justify spending any money for Americans to rebuild their homes.
Hanging With The Religious Right
Cantor didn’t just pander to the far right; the far right seemed to be big fans of his, too. In 2013, Cantor rubbed shoulders with Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and other ultra-conservative leaders at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast, hosted by a religious-right organization. Cantor was proudly broadcast as a special guest of the event, which featured Messianic Rabbi Jonathan Cahn as a keynote speaker. Cahn believes that the Bible forewarned us against the September 11 attacks, that the U.S. is in the midst of divine punishment for “tolerance for immorality” and teaching “sexual immorality in public schools,” and that America has about 10 to 20 years left before God destroys it.
The Eventbrite invitation for the breakfast noted that it would include pancakes, warm apples, yogurt martini, sausage or turkey bacon, and coffee or tea, but failed to mention the main attraction on the menu — a healthy helping of far-right lunacy.
Inviting Secessionists To The Capitol
In what might be our favorite example of Cantor’s far-right tendencies, the former majority leader once planned to receive a group of secessionists on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. In 2010, an anti-government, pro-secession group known as the Constitution Alliance organized an event in Washington, D.C., in which Cantor was expected to accept a letter from Virginian lawmakers declaring the state a sovereign entity.
At the time, the Virginia Sovereignty March claimed on its website that Cantor would “officially receive the delegation at the U.S. Capitol,” not only tacitly encouraging its attempts to leave the United States, but seeming to support them. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) was also an expected participant in the Sovereignty March’s antics, along with Richard Viguerie, a pioneer of the religious right.
With company like this, how could Cantor possibly lose the support of the conservative base?