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The Legacy of Cantor's Defeat Is Shaping Up to Be Incredibly Small

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A very strange thing happened to me on Wednesday afternoon, when I finally took a break from clicking 100 different refresh buttons and walked, groggily, down to my neighborhood Chop't for a nine-and-a-half pound salad.

I prepared myself for my first real glimpse at humanity since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's brutal primary defeat sent shockwaves through our society the night before. Surely everyone who'd mustered the strength to brave the outdoors would be stunned, bedraggled, terrified of the reverberations to come.

But when I arrived, the people in line were as bored and diet-conscious as they always are. Most of them were looking down into their smartphones. A few chatted with colleagues or fellow tourists about trivia like the weather (it was hot). Nobody seemed to realize that something extraordinary had just happened.

The profound contrast to the humming worlds of political Twitter, the U.S. Capitol, K Street, and Web Traffic™ now strikes me as incredibly apt symbolism. Three days later, Cantor's defeat is still the biggest story in American electoral politics. But its legacy is shaping up to be a lot more humdrum than the buzz and and excitement surrounding it imply.

By losing, Cantor created an incredible fundraising opportunity for vulturous electoral chop shops on the right, most of which did absolutely nothing to bring him down. And he offered Democrats an unexpected opportunity (of unclear significance and duration) to remind voters that only one of the two parties is an ungovernable mess at the moment.

But the timing of the development, and the circumstances surrounding it, are such that it's unlikely to make almost any lasting differences to the political system or the country.

As of the beginning of the week, Cantor was the last office holder with any exceptional power who had a primary in front of him. Others had already vanquished their challengers with little or no fanfare. If this had happened several weeks ago, a surge of activist energy could plausibly have spilled over into other crucial races. Instead, conservative activists will have to content themselves with the hope that Cantor's defeat presages upsets in Kansas and Tennessee, where Senators Pat Roberts and Lamar Alexander are still facing primaries. The two big outstanding ones.

The problem for them is that the House Majority Leader, though powerful, is also just a congressman. In a single district-level primary, it's feasible for a handful of right wing radio hosts to mobilize the margin of victory, particularly when the incumbent has slept through the race. That strategy, such as it was, will be harder to pull off in a state-wide race. This is the paragraph I will regret writing if Roberts and/or Alexander collapse. But even if that happens, it will be impossible to attribute their losses retrospectively to what happened in Virginia this week. And the rest of the argument will be unaffected.

The in-House election to replace Cantor won't be held for another week. But on Thursday, House Republicans tentatively settled on his replacement and it's…his closest lieutenant Kevin McCarthy. The extent of the fallout within the GOP conference will be largely contained within the office of the Majority Whip, which McCarthy currently holds. And though the outcome there is somewhat uncertain, the fact that conservatives unseated a Majority Leader in order to anoint a new whip neatly encapsulates how anticlimactic this political "earthquake" ultimately was. Particularly at a time when the whip himself will have almost nothing of significance to actually whip.

Cantor's defeat probably didn't imperil or kill any major bills. It may have sent them downriver in body bags, but they weren't going to pass anyhow. That probably includes immigration reform—the one issue that supposedly (though not actually) did Cantor in. But the great irony in all this is that McCarthy hails from a California district with a large immigrant population and is much more favorably disposed toward comprehensive reform than Cantor was.

Looking way ahead to September, I suppose it's possible that a cabal of disenchanted hardliners will decide to make something of all this by trying to shut down the government again. But unless it was part of an elaborate conspiracy to sacrifice GOP seats as a pretext for ousting John Boehner, it'd be an incredibly weird, delayed primal scream, and suggestive of a strange unfamiliarity with how Cantor's exit changes the balance of power in Congress.

Not that the unexpected defrocking of a Majority Leader is an unimportant development. The office is vested with the kind of procedural power that's theoretically vast, but largely invisible to anyone not paying close attention. In a well-functioning majority, it's also largely pro forma. What made the Cantor surprise such a juicy insider story is that the current majority is so fractious that the vacancy carried with it the potential to reignite a Republican civil war. We might still get a small one. But when the dust settles, we'll be left with a leadership team with very little of consequence left to do and thus few decision points at which the presence of an outsider might muck things up.

Looking backward from November, I think it'll be clear that all that crackling we heard this week wasn't Cantor's career crumbling, but a firestorm of our own creation.