WASHINGTON – House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s humiliating defeat Tuesday sounded the opening gun for an unexpected Republican leadership scramble that could vault California’s Kevin McCarthy to the key position.
But McCarthy, currently the chamber’s majority whip and No. 3 Republican, is not the only GOP lawmaker seeing opportunity in Cantor’s primary loss in Virginia. Other ambitious up-and-comers are likewise counting votes and calculating odds in this real-life version of “House of Cards,” or “Game of Thrones.”
“I think Kevin is well-liked,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, “but that’s why we have elections.”
The immediate opening created by Cantor’s primary defeat to David Brat is the job of majority leader, the second most powerful post in the House. It’s also the presumptive next step to becoming House speaker.
Cantor indicated Wednesday he would step down from the majority leader post July 31. His replacement will be selected in private balloting among the 233 House Republicans next Thursday.
Cantor spoke to reporters Wednesday after an at-times emotional meeting of the House GOP caucus. Asked whether he would back anyone for the post he is giving up, Cantor said that if McCarthy seeks the job, he would support him.
Cantor also praised the tea party, which has celebrated his defeat because it has long viewed him, despite a solid conservative voting record, as too willing to compromise on issues like immigration and the government shutdown. Still, the Virginia lawmaker said, “I think this town should always be about striking common ground.”
McCarthy hasn’t officially said he would seek Cantor’s job, but it would be hard to find someone on Capitol Hill who believed otherwise. That would create an opening for the majority whip’s position, and Republican Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois have announced they will both seek the post.
Other openings could be created further down the leadership ladder, depending on what happens. The fact that McCarthy already has a whip operation in place could give him an advantage, since the election will be held in a week.
On a day rich in rumor and short on certainty, the names of other real or potential House leadership candidates include Texas Republicans Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee; and Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
“These guys are all conservative,” noted John Feehery, a former top aide to several House GOP leaders, while noting that “members don’t necessarily vote on ideology, but on effectiveness.”
Hensarling, presumed to be running by Capitol Hill observers, stopped short of saying he was entering the race.
“I am humbled by the many people who have approached me about serving our Republican Conference in a different capacity in the future,” Hensarling said in a statement. “I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts.”
The Texans have a built-in advantage with the size of the Lone Star State’s Republican delegation – 24 members – but one that gets diluted with two candidates in the race. They also would benefit from a clamoring among many members for a red state leader, since all the other people in leadership come from blue or purple states.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman and fourth-ranking GOP lawmaker, took herself out of the leadership shuffle. McMorris Rodgers is the GOP’s highest-ranking woman in Congress.
The dynamics of succession are all the trickier because of recurring questions about how long current House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio will keep his politically exhausting job. Boehner, 64, has struggled to corral a sharply divided caucus.
One major fissure is the split between mainstream Republicans and conservatives aligned with the tea party, newly emboldened by the defeat of Cantor.
With a congressional district in California where Hispanics make up 37 percent of the population, McCarthy, too, could face pressure: from the tea party to toe its harsh line on immigration, and from constituents to push reform. Until now, his caution on immigration has frustrated some of his constituents, including agribusiness leaders who have been urging more aggressive action.