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Cantor's defeat raises more questions than answers about GOP's future

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FILE: June 11, 2014: A truck driven by a supporter for Tea Party candidate Dave Brat's campaign in front of his headquarters in Glen Allen, Va.REUTERS

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary upset has triggered deep and difficult questions about the future of Republican Party politics, amid speculation by some that it could push the caucus further to the right -- but also cautionary words that one race in central Virginia does not necessarily upend an entire chamber of Congress.

“It’s way too soon to tell,” Republican strategist David Payne said. “You have establishment candidates winning and Tea Party candidates winning. How do you generalize? But it seems very obvious to me that different things are happening in different places.”

Capitol Hill lawmakers and political analysts admitted Wednesday to having no clear picture about the future of the GOP in the aftermath of Cantor’s loss.

Cantor, for the near-term, announced that he will step down at the end of July as second-in-command in the GOP-led House, touching off a leadership race.

But major questions remain about the fallout from Cantor’s loss to unheralded economics professor and Tea Party-backed candidate Dave Brat -- including how it will impact the remaining 2014 elections, the 2016 White House race and the hot-button issue of immigration reform.

Even Democrats weren’t sure what it all means.

“I think it's fair to say no one knows what happened there," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who also told reporters that Cantor losing in large part because of his interest in immigration reform was not a death notice for the legislation.  

“A majority of Republicans support this legislation,” said Reid, pointing out that South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham voted in favor of the immigration-reform bill passed by the upper chamber and won re-election Tuesday night. “I believe the glass is more than half full.”

With 22 primaries still on the 2014 schedule, Payne speculated that Brat’s winning strategy of portraying Cantor as backing “amnesty” for the millions of people living illegally in the United States might force Republican candidates further to the right.

He also suggested they might focus the immigration debate more on border security, considering the national attention on the recent surge of Central American children attempting to cross the southern U.S. border.

“This might be a winning strategy,” said Payne, a vice president with Washington-based Vox Global.

Payne and other strategists say the June 24 runoff race in Mississippi between incumbent GOP Sen. Thad Cochran and Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel might be the first indication of where the party is now headed. They finished essentially deadlocked in last week’s GOP primary. But Brat’s win, strategists say, might now tip the race for McDaniel.

A Democratic strategist told FoxNews.com privately that the Brat’s win is a “huge help” for his party’s incumbents because it took away Cantor’s ability to raise millions for Republicans in general election races.

“Without him, it’s going to be very hard to replace that money,” he said.

Cantor’s 7th congressional District, in the Richmond area, is decidedly conservative, having elected only one Democrat -- Sen. Mark Warner in 2008 -- in a statewide election since 1996. It has not elected a Democratic congressman since 1963.  

What implications his loss might have on the 2016 presidential race appears too hard to predict. There are already a couple of Tea Party-backed lawmakers considering a run, including GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Although both potential candidates are among the most popular with voters in early polls, Washington Republicans are concerned about whether either will have enough mainstream appeal to win a general election.

Cantor’s leadership exit after the Brat win also increases the possibility that one of the House GOP’s most conservative members could join the leadership team with Speaker John Boehner when the caucus is expected to vote June 19.

“I am humbled by the many people who have approached me,” said Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, among the chamber’s most conservative members. “I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts.”