WASHINGTON — In one of the most stunning primary election upsets in congressional history, the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., was soundly defeated on Tuesday by a tea party-backed economics professor who had hammered him for being insufficiently conservative.
Cantor's defeat delivered a major jolt to the Republican Party — Cantor had widely been considered the top candidate to succeed Speaker John Boehner one day — and it has the potential both to change the debate in Washington on immigration and to reshape the midterm elections, which had been favoring his party.
With just more than $200,000, David Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., toppled Cantor, repeatedly criticizing him for being soft on immigration and contending that he supported what critics call amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally.
The Associated Press declared Brat the winner. He had 55.5 percent of the vote; Cantor got 44.5 percent.
"I know there's a lot of long faces here tonight," he said to a stunned crowd of supporters in a Richmond hotel ballroom. "It's disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us."
Going into the elections, most Republicans had been watching for how broad Cantor's victory would be, with almost no one predicting that he would lose.
Cantor, 51, who is in his seventh term, had sought to rebut Brat's charges on immigration, using some of his $5.4 million to send fliers and air television ads in which he claimed to oppose an "amnesty" policy. But with significant help from conservative talk radio figures such as Laura Ingraham, Brat was able to galvanize opposition to Cantor in one of Virginia's most conservative congressional districts.
Cantor's loss recalled the defeat of former Speaker Thomas Foley, a Democrat who lost to a little-known Republican, George Nethercutt, in the 1994 general elections that delivered control of Congress to the Republicans. It is extremely rare for a member of the congressional leadership to lose a primary.
Cantor had won primary elections in his district around Richmond, Va., with as much as 79 percent of the vote, and he won his race for a sixth term with 58 percent. He was not seen as vulnerable in this cycle.
Within the Republican Party, he was seen as a star, with the ability to tap into the energy of the House's more conservative members while at the same time not alienating the party's establishment wing.
In the House, his relationship with Boehner reflected some of the larger tensions within the party. Cantor was strongly opposed, for instance, to the so-called grand bargain budget negotiations between the speaker and President Barack Obama.
Brat had significant help from people like Ingraham, who helped reinforce his position on immigration, a message that resonated particularly with the more rural voters in the district.
Ingraham said on Fox News on Tuesday night that the primary results were "an absolute repudiation of establishment politics" and that Republican leaders should take note.
"He really just didn't have very much money, but what he did have was a lot of heart," she said of Brat. "I think there will be a lot of people out there saying this could be the beginning of something really big for the Republican Party."
Cantor received what amounted to a warning shot from local Republicans at a district convention last month in Henrico County, his political home base, when conservatives ousted one of his loyalists as Republican chairman.
Yet he seemed to recognize the seriousness of the threat only in the final weeks of the campaign, when he suddenly shifted his advertising and began sending aides from Washington to his district. At that point, it was too late to stave off defeat.
In addition to Brat's criticism that Cantor was insufficiently conservative, Cantor faced anger in his district for the perception that he was too detached from the area.
"I'm in shock," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., expressing the mood on Capitol Hill.
Cantor was part of the team that led the GOP to victory in 2010 and the mastermind of a young-guns program that propelled the very sort of tea party candidate who ultimately spelled his doom. He was the original friend of freshman Republicans who, against the wishes of Boehner, resisted raising the debt ceiling and other deals.
GRAHAM WINS: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., comfortably won his Republican primary Tuesday, defeating a field of six lesser-known challengers who failed to gain any traction against the backdrop of a tea party movement unhappy with the second-term senator.