SALT LAKE CITY — In a private meeting with U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor just hours before he lost his seat in Virginia's Republican primary, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the election was never mentioned.
"It wasn't even on the radar. I didn't get a sense of urgency or vulnerability," Chaffetz said Wednesday, calling the majority leader's defeat "shocking in large part because nobody expected it. It wasn't supposed to be a tight race."
Cantor, who announced he is stepping down from his leadership post by the end of July, was upset in the race by Dave Brat, a little-known economics professor seen as a tea party conservative.
Brat campaigned hard on the immigration issue, telling voters Cantor supported "amnesty" for immigrants in the country illegally by backing a pathway to citizenship for the children who came with them.
The surprising success of Brat's attack is being seen as making it even more difficult for Congress to take long-awaited action on immigration reform, especially in an election year.
Lane Beattie, president and chief executive officer of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he's concerned about the impact the Virginia race will have on the immigration issue but cautioned it's just a single decision by voters.
"One election isn't a movement," Beattie said.
Still, the business leader said, he doesn't want to downplay the possible effect. "If what happened is that because of this, they will not even consider immigration, that's significant," he said.
Arturo Morales LLan, a member of Utah's Republican State Central Committee, said Cantor's immigration stance may not be the sole reason he lost, but GOP leaders aren't focused on issues like border security that matter most to voters.
"We don't see Republican leadership stepping up to the plate," Morales LLan said, calling the Virginia race one where substance mattered. "Yet we hear them talking about compassion and amnesty for those who are here."
Dave Hansen, a former Utah GOP chairman who's now running congressional candidate Mia Love's campaign, said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" that immigration clearly had an impact at the polls in Cantor's race.
"It was kind of the hook his opponent grabbed onto and ran with. It was the motivating factor to get people energized in that race," Hansen said, describing the race as coming down to voter turnout.
Former Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his re-election bid in 2010 at a tea party-dominated state GOP convention, said the outcome of Cantor's primary election may not be so surprising after all.
Bennett chalked Cantor's failure at the polls to a combination of "neglecting constituents over a long period of time and running a foolish campaign" that made Brat into a "sympatric character" with a series of negative campaign ads.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., faced a similar tea party challenge Tuesday that also focused on his support for immigration reform and won by being a better candidate, Bennett said.
"I don't think you can say this means the tea party is back to the level of strength it had in 2010," said Bennett, who writes a column for the Deseret News. "But it's a signal the tea party is not dead."
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it's too soon to say what the effect Brat's win will have on the strength of the tea party in Utah or the rest of the country.
"I don't know how much this is a gigantic win for the tea party or a function of the fact that Eric Cantor was not as attentive to his district as he might have been," Karpowitz said. "I'm not sure we want to generalize."
The winner of Bennett's Senate seat, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a statement the disunity evident in the election results "is not about one individual or one issue. It's not about one candidate or one campaign."
Republicans feel disconnected from their leaders, Lee said.
"It’s about a party starving for new ideas and party leaders who haven’t responded," he said. "This is not just a divide between the establishment and the tea party."
Chaffetz said there's a lesson for all lawmakers in the outcome of Cantor's race.
"It's a blatant reminder that all politics are local and you better first and foremost pay attention to your district," he said. "No matter how influential you might be in D.C., you better pay attention to the folks back home."
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