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Cantor’s loss a bad omen for moderates

The House Republican leadership, so solid in its opposition to President Obama, was torn apart Tuesday by the defeat of its most influential conservative voice, Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader. His demise will reverberate all the way to the speaker's chair, pull the top echelons of the House even further to the right and most likely doom any ambitious legislation, possibly through the next presidential election.

Conservatives who have helped fuel some of the most contentious showdowns over the last three years on issues such as immigration and raising the federal debt ceiling are likely be emboldened by Mr. Cantor's shocking loss as they seek to replace him with someone even more closely aligned with their views.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).

Further, House Republicans began to immediately plot a new leadership structure that before Tuesday night had hinged merely on whether Speaker John A. Boehner would seek to keep his post next year.

One measure of the extraordinary defeat could be seen in the candidate's finances. Since the beginning of last year, Mr. Cantor's campaign had spent about $168,637 at steakhouses compared with the $200,000 his challenger, David Brat, had spent on his entire campaign. With Mr. Cantor out, members from solidly Republican states will almost certainly be vying for one of the top jobs, if not Mr. Boehner's gavel. The current Republican leadership slate is filled with members from swing states where the pressure to moderate views on topics such as immigration looms.

Conservatives who were part of some of the recent showdowns now see potential spoils: Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, for example, has been laying the groundwork for the last several weeks to slide into an open slot should Mr. Boehner retire and, it was assumed, Mr. Cantor take his spot.

More from the New York Times:
Why did Cantor lose? Not easy to explain
Eric Cantor aside, immigration is unlikely to dominate politics
Eric Cantor's voting record: Angering allies is part of the job

While the most conservative members saw immediate validation in Mr. Cantor's defeat, more conciliatory members saw deep trouble ahead. A chastened House leadership will struggle to do the most basic functions of governance — increasing the debt limit, funding the government and passing routine bills — further alienating Congress with the middle of the electorate, said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York. Mr. Cantor's defeat will put an immigration overhaul even further out of reach, something that would hurt Republicans in the next presidential election when they will need to cut into the Democrats' lead with immigrant and Latino voters.

"The results tonight will move the party further to the right, which will marginalize us further as a national party," Mr. King said.

The message from the most conservative primary voters was that even Mr. Cantor, who fashioned himself as the tip of the Tea Party's spear, was not safe. His position in favor of a modest relaxation of immigration law became the rallying cry for the right.

And in a year when the Republican establishment was supposed to finally conquer its Tea Party wing, the upstarts wound up with perhaps the biggest victory of any primary season.

David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said another, more local factor has to be acknowledged: Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative.

"Part of this plays into his religion," Mr. Wasserman said. "You can't ignore the elephant in the room."

Mr. Cantor's demise is mildly Shakespearean. Along with Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, Mr. Cantor helped elevate Tea Party candidates in 2010 across the nation by giving them financial and political support, only to be done in by the very type of newcomer he once groomed.

Mr. Cantor can still mount a write-in campaign ahead of the November election, but he would face long odds.

Mr. King said no one saw the defeat coming. Mr. Cantor was spending money, at least $5 million through the middle of May, lining up an array of the Republican consultants and pollsters. He was a prodigious fund-raiser and a well-liked ambassador to many of the party's top donors. Lawmakers thought he was simply trying to run up the score to establish dominance in the district, and he had evinced no concern whatsoever, lawmakers said Tuesday night.

Read MoreSenior republican Cantor suffers shocking loss to Tea Partyrival

Mr. Wasserman predicted "a free-for-all" when House Republicans assemble after November to pick their new leaders. At the least, Mr. McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican, will seek to move up to majority leader, but he also could challenge Mr. Boehner.

More broadly, Mr. Cantor's defeat will embolden conservatives like Representative Tom Price of Georgia, who has openly complained that the leadership positions are occupied by swing-state Republicans.

Candidates to move up could include Mr. Price, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, or brash newcomers like Representative Tom Graves of Georgia, Mr. Wasserman said. The message is that the House must be run by even more conservative leaders.

At the least, Mr. Obama's push for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws now seems even more elusive.

Mr. Cantor's opponent, Mr. Brat, had virtually no money to conduct a true campaign, but he focused on immigration. His megaphone was conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham, who criticized Mr. Cantor's positions on immigration.

"The world just changed," said Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama and a fierce opponent of the immigration overhaul.

By Jonathon Weisman and Jennifer Steinhauer, The New York Times

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