“This is not conservatism to me,” King said. “Shutting down the government is not being conservative.”
The resignation would mark a swift end to a quick rise to power for Cantor, 51, who was elected to Congress in 2000, was appointed to the leadership two years later, and then rose steadily to become the second-most powerful Republican in the House. In that post, he was the most powerful Jewish Republican in Congress, and occasionally was seen as a potential rival to Speaker John Boehner but more often as a likely successor.
Brat campaigned as a foe of immigration legislation, and said Cantor was likely to help immigrants living in the United States illegally gain amnesty if given a new term in the House. Interviewed on MSNBC, Brat declined to spell out any policy specifics.
“I’m a Ph.D. in economics, and so you analyze every situation uniquely,” he said. Brat begins the fall campaign as a decided favorite in the race against Democratic rival Jack Trammell in a solidly Republican Richmond-area district.
His primary triumph was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for Tea Party forces, although last week they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and they hope state Sen. Chris McDaniel will achieve victory then.
The impact of Cantor’s surprise loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clear. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Cantor has compiled a solidly conservative voting record in his tenure, but he was sometimes viewed with suspicion by tea party activists who said he had been in Congress too long and was insufficiently committed to blocking immigration legislation. Many party officials argue that Republicans must temper their hard line on immigration if they are to compete effectively in future presidential elections.
Already on Wednesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential Democratic contender, said Cantor “was defeated by a candidate who basically ran against immigrants.”
Democrats, underdogs in the struggle for control of the House this fall, sought to cast Cantor’s defeat as evidence that the Republican Party and Tea Party groups were one.
“The Republican Party has been completely swallowed by the Tea Party. I mean, any debate over whether the Tea Party controls the Republican Party has ended,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic national chair, said on MSNBC.
At the closed door meeting, Boehner praised Cantor and urged the rank and file to remain cohesive.
This is the time for unity, the time for focus,” he said, according to one official in the room. “Focus on the thing we all know to be true: The failure of Barack Obama’s policies and our obligation to show the American people we offer them not just a viable alternative, but a better future.”