Eric Cantor's effort to rebrand Republicans from deficit hawks to policy innovators was intended to help the GOP recapture the White House in 2016. But his push didn't even make it through the midterm elections.
Cantor had been outspoken on the need for Republicans to focus on "what lies beyond the fiscal debate,'' including education and immigration overhauls, and had used his position as House majority leader to move such legislation.
Republicans now wonder whether the banner of rebranding — Cantor called it "Making Life Work" — disappears or is grabbed and carried forward by others in the GOP-controlled House.
Conceding defeat Tuesday, Cantor mentioned a pediatric research bill he had championed that became law in April. But his effort to allow employers to offer comp time instead of overtime is opposed by Senate Democrats and the White House, and immigration overhaul has failed to move.
"There wasn't uniform opposition or uniform support. These were Eric's ideas of how the Republican Party could move forward,'' said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank where Cantor kicked off his rebranding effort with a speech in February 2013. "People are going to say this (defeat) is a repudiation of his vision of the Republican Party, but you'll find a ton of people who share his vision,''
He pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham, an immigration-overhaul supporter who won his primary Tuesday even as Cantor was losing his.
Cantor leaves "a huge gap that we will now have to figure out who is the best person to fill it," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of the group of House Republicans who support a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Asked who in the House would now take up Cantor's mantle to expand the GOP tent, Diaz-Balart said they exist. "There are, but I'm not going to say who. There's a number who are,'' he said. "Eric was always talking about how he wanted to make this a better country and a greater country for everyone, and I think there's a lot of people who feel that in in our conference."
Cantor's "Making Life Work" legislative program provoked some cynicism because he had launched similarly themed efforts in the past, including his "Young Guns" leadership trio with Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan. But it dovetailed with efforts by the Republican National Committee to improve the party's standing with women and minority voters after big losses in the 2012 elections and to present the GOP as a source of positive solutions, not just budget-cutting.
"Hate to see him go, but I think this rebranding is bigger than any one person,'' said Glenn McCall, an RNC member from South Carolina and one of the authors of the GOP's post-election report often referred to as an autopsy.
Ari Fleischer, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration and also a co-author of the GOP report, says Cantor has "a good sense of the middle-class anxiety and issues that we need to legislate on, so that makes his loss even more hurtful. ... It's time for others to step up.''
Although Cantor's support for immigration overhaul may have been a factor in his defeat, such legislation is necessary if the GOP is ever going to attract Hispanic voters, Fleischer says. "If it's never done and Republicans continue to have the image that they have, it's going to lock the Republicans out of the White House.''
Contributing: Susan Davis
An unknown college professor takes down the second-most powerful House leader in what might be the political shocker of the year.