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Cantor Backs McCarthy as Majority Leader Successor

Cantor Backs McCarthy as Majority Leader Successor

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 12, 2014

In the wake of the most stunning election upset in recent memory, a defeated Eric Cantor invoked the Old Testament on Wednesday to explain what had happened and what is to come for him.

“You learn about individual setbacks. But you also read and you learn that each setback is an opportunity, and that there’s always optimism for the future,” the Virginia congressman told reporters, reflecting on lessons he learned in Hebrew school. “And while I may have suffered a personal setback last night, I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of this country.”

Cantor then announced that he will relinquish his role as House majority leader at the end of next month, officially opening the door to potential successors already jockeying for his post, and possibly others. Leadership elections will be held next Wednesday.

The announcement punctuated the most difficult time in the seven-term lawmaker’s political career, one in which he rose quickly to power with ambitions of one day becoming speaker of the House. That dream was shattered when an underfunded economics professor named David Brat trounced him by 11 points in the 7th District Republican primary and disrupted the prevailing narrative of the 2014 midterm elections.

Cantor’s message by day’s end seemed not only a reflection on loss but also an appeal to his fragile conference, which was both rattled and invigorated by a Tea Party movement that swept Cantor into the highest echelons of Congress but came back to haunt him several years later.

House GOP leaders are now faced with the daunting but vital task of keeping the caucus together in a high-stakes election year while also moving quickly to elect a new second-in-command to avoid distractions and temper further divisions.

To that end, a teary House Speaker John Boehner focused his remarks to his colleagues Wednesday on the importance of being united. And for that, he turned to Winston Churchill.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts,” Boehner told lawmakers behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol, according to a copy of his remarks released by the speaker's office. The Ohio congressman then recalled his own setback, when he was kicked from his chairmanship of the House Republican Conference: “As one who suffered a tough defeat myself in 1998, I can tell you there’s plenty of wisdom in that statement.”

Boehner made clear to lawmakers that he intended to stay on as speaker, and urged his members to direct their ire at the president and Democrats. "This is the time for unity; the time for focus -- focus on the thing we all know to be true: the failure of Barack Obama's policies and our obligation to show the American people we offer them not just a viable alternative, but a better future.” 

But the focus this week and next will inevitably be on the next leaders of the House GOP. Several members of the GOP conference have their eyes on Cantor’s post, and there figures to be some reshuffling of leadership positions.

Cantor said he will back California Republican Kevin McCarthy, currently the House whip and third-in-command, to replace him. “I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader,” he said.

McCarthy had begun reaching out to colleagues Wednesday, cultivating support for the job. At the conference meeting later that day, he paid tribute to Cantor, and credited him for leading Republicans in gaining a majority in the House, according to lawmakers who were present.

But current Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions also wants Cantor’s job and will challenge McCarthy for it. “I have a good handle on what the needs of our conference are, but I’ve been innovative enough to move us to victory. … I will continue to aim for everybody’s success,” the Texas congressman told RCP when asked how he is selling himself to members. Sessions chaired the House Republicans’ campaign arm when the party won back the majority in 2010.

Another Texan, Jeb Hensarling, is also weighing whether to toss his hat into the leadership ring. The six-term lawmaker leads the Financial Services Committee and recently chaired the House Republican Conference. Members of the Texas delegation huddled in a room in the Capitol Wednesday to discuss the two Lone Star State leaders.

Current Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers opted to stay in her post and removed her name from contention for a higher spot on the leadership team.

If McCarthy wins next week -- the quick turnaround is said to benefit him, as he is well connected as the whip -- then it will create an opening for his current position as the chamber’s official wrangler.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana is running for whip, having been encouraged by fellow committee members to make a bid after Cantor’s loss.

“Look at the job I’ve done running the RSC: I focused on advancing Republican principles and uniting Republicans around those values that get our country moving again,” Scalise told RCP. A win by Scalise would also create an opening for leader of the study committee, which includes the most conservative members of the House.

Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, a deputy of McCarthy’s, is also interested in the whip role. His entry could pit the establishment wing of the party against conservatives.

Many lawmakers heading into meetings Wednesday expressed a preference for a “red state conservative” to enter one of the soon-to-open leadership posts. The current top four leaders hail from Ohio, Virginia, California, and Washington state, all of which have trended blue (or purple) in recent elections.

Aside from shaking up the GOP leadership ranks, Cantor’s defeat also gave pause to other incumbents engaged in re-election bids and raised questions about whether compromise on legislation would be even more difficult to come by on Capitol Hill.

[At a fundraiser Wednesday night, President Obama touched on the election outcome, in particular its supposed dampening of the prospects for immigration reform. “It’s interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts, and some of the conventional wisdom talks about, oh, ‘the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now,’” he told those at a DSCC event in Weston, Mass. “I fundamentally reject that. And I will tell the speaker of the House that he needs to reject that.” Citing a litany of his administration’s priority issues, including immigration, infrastructure investment, the minimum wage and pay equity, he insisted that “politics can’t play a part” in efforts to move forward.]

Lawmakers cited a number of factors that they thought contributed to Cantor’s loss, including his support for immigration reform, spending too little time in his home district (while fundraising elsewhere for fellow Republicans), faulty polling and voters’ overall dissatisfaction with Congress.

“I think part of what we’re seeing here is our constituents are very angry with this administration and the way they are running this country … and they’re angry at us and our leadership, Republicans, because we’re not stopping them from doing that,” said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming. “It’s at a fever pitch.”

Others chalked it up to the oft-repeated adage that all politics is local. Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, who is currently engaged in a runoff primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, said he isn’t worried about Cantor’s loss having implications there. “I think Eric was in that awkward position of having to be around the country and could not get back to his district. I go home to Georgia every weekend,” he said. “And I think the discussion about supporting the DREAM Act -- I think that was dangerous,” Kingston added, referring to the immigration reform proposal that Cantor had supported and his opponent, Dave Brat, attacked during the campaign.

For his part, Cantor insisted he did everything he could have done. “I was in my district every week,” he said.

“There is a balance between holding a leadership position and serving constituents at home, but never was there a day did I not put the constituents of the 7th District of Virginia first, and I will continue to do so.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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