WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans thought they had found an answer for the conservative insurgencies that had toppled unsuspecting incumbents in recent years: Be prepared, be aggressive and be conservative.
The approach had been working pretty well as senior Republicans in the Senate and the House beat back challenges from the right in the primaries. They hoped to shut out Tea Party-allied groups entirely and deter them from similar disruptive efforts in the future.
Then Sen. Thad Cochran was forced into a runoff in Mississippi that opened the door to the possibility of a high-profile Tea Party upset later this month. Now, Rep. Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat has battered the door down altogether, giving conservative activists a political scalp of the first magnitude and showing that a populist movement some saw as flagging still has the power to rattle the establishment.
“All the credit goes to the activists who did the work and the candidate who was willing to stick his neck out, but the trend is fairly clear,’’ said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a Tea Party group, of the victory by David Brat over Cantor. “Not only are we winning some unwinnable races, but we are changing the incentives that all Republicans face.’’
FreedomWorks and other leading Tea Party organizations did not put money and resources behind Brat, a college professor, like they have in the case of Chris McDaniel, who is opposing Cochran in Mississippi. That has led some critics to suggest that Tea Party groups are taking credit for a victory in Virginia that they had not earned.
But Brat was propelled by grass-roots conservative activists and conservative talk radio — typical elements of a Tea Party candidacy — and the Tea Party wing has hailed it as a triumph.
As Republicans absorbed the results on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, some who have already crossed paths with Tea Party challengers this year said they expected that the Cantor loss would provide momentum to McDaniel and conservative challengers in primaries yet to come in states like Kansas.
“I do think it is going to give the Tea Party a bump,’’ said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who held off a concerted Tea Party challenge in a primary this year.
Tea Party challengers themselves were more than ready to predict victories ahead. Milton Wolf, who is opposing Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, used the Cantor defeat to take a shot at Roberts, whom Wolf has criticized for not owning a home in Kansas and spending most of his time in the Washington area.
“Eric Cantor isn’t the only incumbent from Virginia who is going to lose his primary this year,’’ Wolf said in a statement. “On Aug. 5, it’s Pat Roberts’s turn.’’
Others were not persuaded that Cantor’s loss, while momentous, was particularly portentous. They noted that Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, joined Simpson of Idaho in easily vanquishing a Tea Party opponent with substantial organizational backing. In addition, they said, each race has unique characteristics.
“It’s one election,’’ said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y. “I don’t know how much it was local issues. Mike Simpson, they went after him for a year, and he won big. McConnell won big. Thad Cochran didn’t, and obviously Eric didn’t.’’
Even if the movement cannot pull off big upsets in Kansas or Tennessee, where Sen. Lamar Alexander also has a Tea Party opponent, it is still influencing the course of events in Washington and pushing the Republican Party and its candidates to the right.
Cantor’s defeat will make incumbents much more reluctant to entertain any compromise with President Barack Obama and the Democrats on issues like immigration, or to make votes that inflame the Republican base such as increasing the federal debt limit.
“Americans are very, very frustrated with Washington, and they are serious about wanting change,’’ said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. “They’re frustrated that our leadership is not really going after this administration even harder than they are. We’re doing all these oversight hearings. And I’m not sure exactly what we could do, but they’re still frustrated.’’
Kibbe, whose group is ramping up its get-out-the-vote operation on behalf of McDaniel in Mississippi, said he saw many parallels between the Cantor race and the effort to unseat Cochran.
The opposition painted them both as Washington insiders tied to the capital’s establishment and lobbying community and increasingly out of touch with voters back home. It can be a potent message in a political environment where some voters are clearly angry about the direction of Congress.
“Eric Cantor is the poster boy for the problem of D.C. interests dominating the Republican policy agenda,’’ said Kibbe. “Everyone is focused on immigration, but crony capitalism and corrupt insiders was really the overarching theme.’’
He said he expected other Tea Party challengers to feed off the Virginia results.
“There is nothing like winning to encourage activists to double down and work hard,’’ he said.