The Tea Party is back, with menace. Congressman Eric Cantor’s shock defeat in a Republican primary is as close to an uprising as occurs in American politics.

Republicans of all stripes, even the most conservative, are now in a panic about their jobs. The defenestration of the heir apparent to the Republican leadership – and number two in the House of Representatives – is also bad news for President Barack Obama. With Mr Cantor’s defeat goes any prospect of Congress passing an immigration overhaul or other significant bills this year – and quite possibly for the remainder of Mr Obama’s term. Even before Tuesday night, the climate was frosty in Washington. The danger is that it will now slip back into the deep freeze.

It is therefore vital that sitting Republicans do not over-interpret what caused Mr Cantor’s ouster. The panic-first crowd believe Mr Cantor lost the confidence of Republican voters in his Virginia district because he was not conservative enough. This is in spite of the fact that his record was considerably to the right of John Boehner, the Republican Speaker, whom he was often believed to be plotting against. If that view is correct, then virtually no Republican is safe, with the exception perhaps of Ted Cruz, the Texan senator, who presents himself as the champion of the grassroots movement. Yet beyond Thursday’s excitement at seeing the Virginia conservative crusader unhorsed, there is evidence that Mr Cantor’s demise was partly self-inflicted.

A cardinal rule of politics is to keep the base happy. Although Mr Cantor’s district is just a couple of hours drive from Washington, voters saw him as an absentee landlord. Conservative activists, including David Brat, the little-known college professor who defeated him, depicted Mr Cantor as too wrapped up in personal ambition to bother with his district. In contrast, moderate Republicans, such as Lindsay Graham, the senator from South Carolina, and Mr Boehner himself, have both survived recent primary challenges. Both are conscientious about tending to their constituents. If there is a lesson to Mr Cantor’s fall, it is to avoid being cast as the establishment. The Republican grassroots despises Washington. No incumbent can afford being seen as captured.

That said, Mr Cantor’s defeat can only be good news for the Tea Party. Before Tuesday, establishment Republicans were hopeful the Tea Party had passed its peak. Now it has sprung back to life. and its nativist wing is riding high.

In spite of having opposed citizenship for undocumented aliens, Mr Cantor was seen as too soft on immigration – he had hinted at supporting a compromise “Dreamers” bill that would given citizenship to their children. His opponents made great play of this. His defeat will therefore have a chilling effect on immigration reform, but the big question is whether it signals a return to the brinkmanship that led the US to the point of its first sovereign default in 2011.

It was Mr Cantor who raised that dire prospect by scuppering a fiscal deal that Mr Boehner had negotiated with President Obama. Yet Mr Cantor’s opponents depicted him as too cosy with the White House. So while the prospect of another round of debt-ceiling brinkmanship rose this week, much will depend on what lessons Republicans themselves draw from the defeat. Immigration reform is particularly difficult because Republicans need Hispanic votes to cement a national majority.

The ultimate test will come with the contest for the 2016 presidential nomination. If Mr Cantor’s unseating was an outlier, mainstream Republicans, such as Jeb Bush, are still in with a chance of winning. The lesson for them, and for those who value the pragmatic spirit that is necessary for the US system to function, is to engage voters at every opportunity.

Get alerts on World when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article