That theory, or at least that closely held hope, was obliterated Tuesday evening, as the Virginia Republican suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of university professor Dave Brat.
The tea leaves for Cantor's fate might have been read by the most prescient political observers two weeks ago in his home district of Richmond, where Brat held a press conference on the steps of the state capitol building to denounce the House's No. 2 Republican for having the "most liberal" record on immigration of any sitting GOP lawmaker in Congress.
"Eric Cantor has been the No. 1 cheerleader in Congress for amnesty," said Brat on May 28 to half a dozen reporters, referencing Cantor's stated support for overhauling the nation's immigration system and providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, especially those brought into the country illegally by their parents.
"There is no Republican in this country," Brat continued, "who is more liberal on immigration than Eric Cantor." At first blush, the statement sounded hyperbolic at best: Cantor has consistently held the party's establishment position that rewriting the immigration code is an important priority but always stopped far short of supporting the Senate's immigration bill, much loathed by Republicans, and Cantor stuck to the leadership talking point that an immigration overhaul was stalled because of distrust of President Barack Obama.
He backed the immigration principles released by GOP leaders in January although only a tiny minority of the conference were willing to follow suit and go on the record to back them.
He had generally kept his distance on the issue from Democrats or rank-and-file Republicans pushing the hardest for an immigration overhaul, like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., or the three House Republicans who signed onto the House Democrats' pseudo-companion bill to the Senate legislation: Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham, both of California, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida.
And Cantor, fearing the wrath of staunch and Tea Party conservatives on immigration, tacked to the far-right as the primary drew near. In campaign literature, he issued statements using calling touting his role in opposing "amnesty" and he was accused by Democrats of slow-walking immigration legislation out of fear of retribution from opponents.
Brat accused Cantor of trying to overplay his opposition to advancing an immigration bill after he had already carved out a record of being in favor of one. His rhetoric was loud, confrontational and provocative, crafting a narrative for his base that was hard to drown out as Cantor went about his business in Washington, D.C.
Brat purposefully held his May 28 press conference on the same day Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., also visited Richmond to participate in a rally to implore Cantor not to bow to political pressure. Brat said that Gutierrez and Cantor were "in cahoots," with Gutierrez' visit designed to actually bolster Cantor by feigning outrage over Cantor's allegedly manufactured opposition to an immigration overhaul.
Gutierrez at the time denied he was there for political purposes.
"People might think we're here because there's a primary next week. Nothing could be farther from the truth," Gutierrez told supporters assembled at his event, organized by CASA de Virginia, many of whom held signs reading "Cantor: the one man blocking immigration reform," and "Eric Cantor: Give us a vote."
"The primary is really irrelevant to us," Gutierrez continued. "We're here because the majority leader, Eric Cantor, controls the agenda of the Congress of the United States. And we have come here to say ... stop being an obstacle, stop being in the way."
Like it or not, Gutierrez will have his wish in January.
But while Gutierrez might not have been looking to oust Cantor, CASA de Virginia ultimately appeared to have a different agenda. Following Cantor's concession speech on Tuesday night, about 70 immigration activists affiliated with the organization stormed his campaign headquarters.
“Congressman Cantor should have listened to his constituents and this is why he lost,” said one activist who hails from Cantor's district, Raul Benitez, in a statement.
"Eric Cantor lost because he was a pretend tea partier," added Lindolfo Carballo, a leader of the Tuesday protest. "Voters, faith and business leaders, and more all agree that we need a real leader to end the suffering of our families."
Pro-immigration overhaul groups also weighed in on Tuesday to attribute Cantor's loss to his alleged anti-immigration overhaul stance.
“Let’s be clear: Eric Cantor was no friend of immigration reform. He’s been the main person in the House blocking a vote on citizenship, and he proudly campaigned on his opposition to reform," said America's Voice executive director Frank Sharry in a written statement, alluding to Cantor's recent move to block consideration of an amendment on the floor to the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill that would have let undocumented immigrations attain citizenship in exchange for military service.
“Too bad Rep. Cantor didn’t steal a page from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who leaned into the issue, was unapologetic about his principled stand and won his primary handily," Sharry said. "Elections are referendums on an incumbent’s leadership ability. Graham won big. Cantor lost big.”
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