WASHINGTON – As soon as a little-known conservative toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night, tea party enthusiasts turned their sights to the next big election-year targets: Mississippi and Kansas.
The two states are next up on the GOP’s primary calendar as Washington insiders, particularly 76-year-old Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, are fighting hard-right upstarts in an environment in which outsiders have suddenly gained currency.
“Virginia is a wake-up call,” said an email fundraiser sent Wednesday morning by the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is working to elect hard-right candidates. “The tea party is very much alive.”
For most of this election cycle, the tea party has struggled to capture the small-government enthusiasm that gave it power in 2010 and 2012. Now, the Virginia results have given the movement’s activists new optimism.
Cantor was routed by a college professor, Dave Brat, who relied on $120,000 and the enthusiasm of a conservative populist movement to propel turnout in a race that caught official Washington by surprise. The contest had been considered such a long shot that national tea party organizations had declined to get involved.
Major figures in the party establishment have been watching, and seeking to influence, those challenges all year. With Senate control within reach – Republicans need to pick up six seats in November to gain a majority – GOP leaders have been determined to avoid a repeat of past elections in which hard-right nominees failed in general elections in states including Nevada, Missouri, Indiana and Delaware.
But many Republican establishment figures believe the rise of more populist conservatives in the party and the divisions that have resulted bode poorly for the future, especially as the GOP looks to the 2016 presidential election.
“We’ve got to figure out how to bring the various factions of the Republican Party together or we’re in serious trouble in Virginia and nationally,” said the state’s former lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling. “And I don’t think we’re anywhere close to figuring it out. Maybe an election like this will get people’s attention. Maybe it will just create deeper divisions.”