Eric Cantor confronts Republican infighting
By: Jake Sherman
April 27, 2014 05:53 PM EDT
RICHMOND, Va. — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is a rising star in national politics, but here at home, he’s at the center of a battle with fellow Republicans.
His allies are maneuvering to pack leadership slots at the Republican Party of Virginia with like-minded figures — a move they hope will bring stability to a party with little money and lots of infighting.
That’s infuriated some local conservatives, who feel they are being squeezed out of positions of power and aren’t going down without a fight. They are rallying behind insurgent primary challenger Dave Brat, an economics professor with just $40,000 in the bank — compared to Cantor’s $2 million.
While Brat has little chance of upsetting Cantor in the June 10 primary, the campaign and its supporters are making life a little tougher for Cantor, who will almost certainly become the next speaker of the House.
It’s a reminder for the majority leader: His power and prominence in Washington could hurt him with conservatives in his district. Cantor’s aides are aware of the need to minimize friction with the far right, but their internal polling shows that people who self-identify as members of the tea party overwhelmingly support Cantor.
Both Cantor and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have primary challenges this year.
“What we’re talking about here is Eric Cantor disenfranchising and attacking the conservative base of his own party,” said Larry Nordvig, a leader of the Richmond Tea Party. “And he’s supposed to be a leader in the Republican Party. Good leaders don’t attack their own people. I’m very upset about it. It’s un-American. It’s a cheap trick.”
The right’s angst with Cantor is a new phenomenon. When Republicans gained control of the House in 2011, Cantor was seen as the tea party’s voice in leadership. But debt ceiling hikes and Cantor’s support for immigration reform have given conservatives pause.
So far, Cantor’s career has proceeded mostly without hiccup. He has served in his party’s leadership for more than a decade and is in line to be the next speaker. His biggest challenge is remaining patient, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shows no signs of retiring soon.
But his obstacles back home were on display at a recent meeting of the Hanover County Republican Party, held in a conference room at a Bass Pro Shop in Ashland. Brat’s supporters at the gathering far outnumbered Cantor’s, and the upstart challenger took the opportunity to lambaste Washington — and Cantor.
The central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business — specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
“If you’re in big business, Eric’s been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right?” Brat said at the meeting. “Very powerful. Very good at fundraising because he favors big business. But when you’re favoring artificially big business, someone’s paying the tab for that. Someone’s paying the price for that, and guess who that is? You.”
Cantor’s allies say that is exactly the type of rhetoric that has left the state party struggling for cash.
Though Cantor’s team denies he is in any real electoral danger, they are not taking chances. He is running two commercials on Fox News in the Richmond and Washington television markets. One talks about Cantor standing up to President Barack Obama, and another claims that Brat worked for then-Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat who is now in the Senate. (Brat was on a statewide board of economists.)
Cantor is also running radio advertisements during conservative talk shows. Amid charges on the right that Cantor supports amnesty for illegal immigrants, the majority leader’s aides sent reporters a description of a phone call with Obama, saying that he rebuffed the president’s offer to work together on immigration reform. The White House responded by saying Obama simply called him to wish him a happy Passover.
“Yes, we are running a full campaign,” said Ray Allen, Cantor’s Richmond-based political brain. “But I would just suggest to you it’s very in-character. We always run a full-on campaign. We never take anything for granted.”
That aggressive posture is also on display at the statewide level. Republicans have fallen out of favor in Virginia, holding no statewide elected office for the first time in decades. Cantor is now the highest-ranking member of his party in the state. This leaves him — and his friends — with the responsibility of bolstering the Republican Party of Virginia, which is racked by infighting and has a paltry $28,070 in the bank.
To get friends into spots of power, YG Virginia — a Young Guns-branded entity founded by Cantor’s former top aides — has employed a tactic called “slating.” It’s a way to hand-select the delegates that a local GOP group sends to its district convention. The delegates select a district chairman, who sits on the state central committee and helps run the party.
It gives Cantor and his political allies more control. But the move is also meant to protect incumbent Republicans. Some of the conservatives who are being marginalized support electing GOP nominees by convention instead of primaries. It’s far easier to knock off an incumbent at a party convention than in a primary.
YG Virginia was successful in March in Virginia Beach — far from Cantor’s Richmond home — in sending a few dozen chosen delegates to the congressional convention this weekend and pushing aside conservative activists. They promoted Frank Wagner, a state senator, for the new GOP chairman for the Virginia Beach area congressional seat. Cantor served with him in the Legislature. Cantor cut him a $5,000 check in January, and some of the congressman’s closest allies had a heavy role in the local election. Wagner lost at the convention this weekend.
“It is a bunch of Republican elected officials — city council people, the sheriffs, the House of Delegate guys and several congressmen — are tired of the state party apparatus kicking the crap out of us,” said one Republican involved in the efforts. “Being actively hostile.”
A spokesman for YG Virginia said the group is “excited to be playing a big role in education and mobilizing folks on behalf of principled, conservative solutions to the challenges facing middle-class Virginians.”
At times, Cantor’s efforts have backfired. After seeing what happened in Virginia Beach, conservatives came out in large numbers in Henrico County — Cantor’s political stronghold — and defeated an establishment pick. It’s a largely symbolic victory, because at the district convention in May when the chairman is selected, Cantor’s allies will far outnumber the conservatives’ delegates.
Brat’s campaign has become a repository for much of the frustration with Cantor. But he struggles with visibility and, most importantly, cash. He raised a paltry $89,610 in the first quarter of 2014, and his campaign said he’s netted $30,000 more since then. Cantor’s main congressional account has north of $2 million, not to mention his other fundraising entities, which routinely pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars each month.
Brat has the endorsements of several tea party leaders around the district and of conservatives like Ann Coulter. Additional big endorsements, Brat vows, could come in the next few weeks. Brat says he has spoken with members of Cantor’s House Republican Conference, some of whom, he says, seem receptive to his run — but he declines to name them. He did say that Cantor seems “very aware” that he has competition in Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling.
Asked if he spoke to Hensarling, whom many see as Cantor’s inside-the-Beltway rival, Brat first asked whether the comment would be on the record, and then said, “No comment on that.” Hensarling’s office said “to the best of our knowledge” Brat has not spoken or met with the Texan, and “the congressman supports our Republican leader and expects the good people of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District will reelect him.”
For Cantor, the lasting impact of the intraparty battle is mixed. If his circle wrangles control of the state party, it could prove fruitful for him and many of his colleagues around the state. But if the tea party remains opposed to Cantor, it could remain a thorn in his side.
“Immigration, raising the debt ceiling; I see him making more and more concessions, going more to the middle,” said Anita Hile, the head of the Henrico Tea Party, who supports Brat. “He used to be a strong conservative, but now, it keeps shifting. He’s more to the middle.”
Some of Cantor’s supporters think it’s good for the majority leader to be on his toes.
“It’s going to make Eric, maybe, respond a little bit more to his constituents,” said Nancy Russell, the chairwoman of the Hanover County Republican Party, who supports Cantor over Brat. “I don’t think competition is bad. I don’t think it’s bad at all.”