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Eric Cantor loses primary in big upset; Lindsey Graham avoids runoff

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eric Cantor fell to tea party challenger Dave Brat, who many counted out
  • Cantor has been the subject of speculation that he could become speaker
  • Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham wins his primary in South Carolina

(CNN) -- In what's being described as a political "earthquake," a tea party neophyte booted the No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor, from office. But the tea party suffered a setback in South Carolina, where incumbent Lindsey Graham prevailed to avoid a runoff.

Cantor conceded the race with 99% of precincts reporting from the Richmond-area district showing him trailing Dave Brat 56% to 44%, according to the Virginia Secretary of State's website. Turnout was low.

"Obviously we came up short," Cantor said in his concession speech.

"It's disappointing sure but I believe in this country. I believe there is opportunity around the next corner for all of us," said Cantor, whose loss is all the more shocking because he's considered very conservative.

Eric Cantor\'s loss caught Washington watchers completely off-guard.
Eric Cantor's loss caught Washington watchers completely off-guard.
Dave Brat was vastly outspent in the Virginia primary but came out on top.
Dave Brat was vastly outspent in the Virginia primary but came out on top.
Cantor failed to 'pay attention at home'

In a statement following Cantor's defeat, House Speaker John Boehner called the No. 2 Republican "a good friend and a great leader."

In his victory speech, Brat struck a populist tone.

"Dollars do not vote, you do," he said. "When I go to D.C., every vote I take will move the pendulum in the direction of the people, away from Washington, D.C.; back to the states; back to the localities; and back to you."

Mark Preston, CNN's executive political editor, said the defeat would have national implications since Cantor has been viewed as ambitious and a potential speaker.

"This came out of nowhere," Preston said.

CNN Political Analyst David Gergen called it an "earthquake" that would "send shock waves through the Republican ranks."

Cantor 'earthquake' rattles Capitol Hill

Graham wins in South Carolina

Although the tea party won big in the Old Dominion, it met defeat in South Carolina, where incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham handled challengers from the right and easily topped the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Graham had some advantages heading into the contest: He had a massive war chest -- around $8 million cash on hand, which gave him a huge campaign cash advantage over his primary opponents -- and outside groups have steered clear of the race, unlike in Mississippi where establishment and tea party groups fought.

"Leadership and problem solving comes with some political risk. You get a bunch of people running against you, but I'm here to tell you, it's very much worth it," Graham said in his victory speech.

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A boost for the right

Brat's victory is another tea party blockbuster, reminiscent of its banner year in 2010 when those conservatives swept Republicans to control of the House.

Most recently, Republican candidate Chris McDaniel in Mississippi gained more votes than longtime Republican Sen. Thad Cochran and forced a runoff, which McDaniel is expected to win.

Key races to watch

Another notable conservative takeover was in 2012 when tea party favorite Ted Cruz defeated Texas Lt. Gov David Dewhurst in the state's Senate GOP primary. Dewhurst had support of most Texas mainstream Republicans. ‎

CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash said the outcome in Cantor's race will re-energize the tea party fueled right and disrupt attempts to bridge gaps between archconservatives and establishment Republicans in Congress.

It could also cloud any prospects the White House and moderates might have for any legislative gains, Bash said.

"This will throw it all up in the air," Bash noted.

Most Republicans viewed Cantor, 51, as the most conservative member in the House leadership and a potential successor to Boehner. Two sources familiar with the thinking of House Speaker John Boehner told Bash that it is now less likely with Cantor out of the picture that he will retire.

Voters rose up

Although Cantor dramatically outspent Brat in a race most political observers anticipated he would win, the cash advantage didn't affect the outcome.

CNN "Crossfire" host Newt Gingrich suggested that a large part of Cantor's constituency in Virginia's reliably conservative 7th Congressional District concluded that he wasn't listening and rose up to toss him out.

Losing, Gingrich said, was by no means the end of his political career, noting that he has a "great record," is a hard worker and could come back if he wants to.

Cantor was President Barack Obama's chief foil in budget negotiations in 2011, a role he proudly pointed out during this campaign season.

Promised a shocker

Brat, who predicted a shocker on Tuesday, is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College. His Democratic opponent in November, Jack Trammell, also teaches at the school outside Richmond. Trammell was nominated at a party convention and is thought to have a very tough road ahead.

In a phone interview with CNN on Monday, Brat argued that Cantor was more attentive to donors in New York and California and big business groups than he is to enacting an agenda based on Republican ideals.

"While he's got an eye on the speaker job, he's turned his back on his constituents," Brat said.

He noted that Cantor and other GOP leaders have dropped their free market principles and not done enough to address looming deficit problems.

Brat attempted to frame his challenge as another case of a grassroots conservative taking on the GOP establishment, a major theme in Republican contests this year.

He has tried to make immigration reform the central issue and said Cantor's position would hurt the economy.

Brat said Cantor's campaign ads actually elevated his name and helped his low-budget campaign, which was supported by some heavyweights in conservative media.

A Boehner bypass? Conservatives have their own message

Cantor challenger, Dave Brat, 'shocked' as results rolled in

Graham defeats conservative challengers, avoids runoff

CNN's Dana Davidsen contributed to this report.

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