WASHINGTON (AFP) - In a stunning defeat, number-two House Republican Eric Cantor was ousted on Tuesday by a more conservative primary challenger who delivered a body blow to the Republican establishment.
Majority Leader Cantor, a powerful party insider who was widely seen as a future speaker of the House, lost his Richmond, Virginia seat to Tea Party-backed insurgent David Brat, who had been thought such a longshot he barely received media airtime.
"I'm running 100 per cent on just mainstream Republican issues. The Republicans need to do a better job of following these, and then we'll get the country out of the ditch," Mr Brat said on Fox TV. He was outspent on the campaign by Mr Cantor - by more than 25 to one.
Yet the veteran Cantor became widely seen in his district as focusing on national Republican positioning. Failing to grasp the scope of the threat, he ignored his own re-election primary race - until it was too late.
"The people are just ready for some major changes in this country," Mr Brat told Fox. "I attribute it to God," he said of his upset. "I'm a believer and so I'm humbled God gave us this win. Just an unbelievable miracle."
His defeat marked a repudiation of establishment politics and plunged his own party's leadership into a state of flux in the midst of the campaign season for November's midterm congressional elections.
Mr Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, conceded on Tuesday evening, saying the loss was "disappointing." "But I believe in this country. I believe there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us," he told supporters in a short concession speech.
"We want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody," Mr Cantor added. "So I'll look forward to continuing to fight for the things that we believe in."
With all 243 precincts reporting, Mr Brat, an economics professor at a Virginia college, defeated Mr Cantor 55.5 per cent to 44.5 per cent. It now throws the once-safe House seat up in the air for the November election.
"This is an earthquake," Minnesota ex-congressman Vin Weber, a Cantor friend, told The Washington Post. "No one thought he'd lose."
Mr Larry Sabato, who heads the Centre for Politics at the University of Virginia, called Mr Cantor's loss "one of the most stunning upsets in modern American political history," according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.
"This is the base rebelling against the GOP leadership in Washington," he added.
If 2010 and 2012 were the years of Tea Party revolt that saw several of their candidates swept into Congress, 2014 was shaping up to be the year the establishment struck back.
Until Tuesday, the Republican leadership had largely been able to swat away the challenges by the anti-tax, small-government Tea Party in the congressional primaries of recent weeks. But the Brat victory brings new energy to the movement, a development that Democrats jumped on as soon as the race was called.
"We all saw how far outside the mainstream this Republican Congress was with Eric Cantor at the helm," said congressman Steve Israel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"Now we will see them run further to the far right with the Tea Party striking fear into the heart of every Republican on the ballot."
Immigration stand hurt Cantor
Mr Brat's victory dramatically reduces the likelihood that Congress passes immigration reform this year. The Senate passed a sweeping bipartisan immigration bill one year ago but many House Republicans said its pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants was a form of "amnesty." Mr Cantor had backed legislation that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to stay and become US nationals, but Mr Brat attacked the position.
His victory "clearly means congressional action on comprehensive immigration reform is dead," Republican strategist Brad Marston told AFP.
"It's the most symbolic issue that captures the differences between myself and Eric Cantor in this race," Mr Brat stressed on Fox.
"Dave Brat won tonight in Virginia because he effectively harnessed the outrage at Washington over the policies that have not been representative of the people including the prospect of amnesty for illegal immigrants, and focused it on one political leader - the Republican who's been pushing for amnesty harder than anyone else in the House GOP Leadership," said Tea Party Patriots Chairman Jenny Beth Martin.
Meanwhile, one of the Republican sponsors of the Senate immigration bill, Senator Lindsey Graham, easily won his South Carolina primary on Tuesday over several GOP challengers.