House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s historic loss in yesterday’s Virginia primary sent shock waves through the Republican Party, creating an opening for a Tea Party-backed candidate to vie for a leadership post and likely cementing Washington gridlock for years.
Cantor is highly unlikely to quit his leadership post, according to a Republican familiar with his plans.
But that didn't stop many the next generation of GOP leaders from jumping into the fray early Wednesday.
Rep. Paul Ryan said he is not interested in a leadership position. Ryan said Cantor's defeat is "very disappointing" but did not change his view of pursuing an elected House leadership job.
"That's just not been my interest," said Ryan, who was the Republican party's vice presidential candidate in 2012.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling said he was "humbled" that people had approached him about possibly taking on a new leadership role and was considering his next steps. Hensarling, a Texas lawmaker who leads the powerful Financial Services Committee, has since been mentioned as a potential new member of House leadership.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, already struggled to marshal his caucus behind basic bills to fund the government and to support such business priorities as rewriting the nation’s immigration laws. His job was made harder by insurgent David Brat’s 56 percent to 44 percent victory over Cantor, the House’s second-highest ranking Republican leader.
“It is stunning on so many levels,” said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush and a onetime House aide. “The most important is it likely means that there is no chance that immigration reform gets on the House floor this summer.”
Cantor’s loss could also have long-range market repercussions, as the seven-term House veteran was an ally for Wall Street on issues ranging from the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program to defending the Export-Import Bank. Those connections also made him vulnerable to the challenge from the small-government movement that emerged after Congress passed the bank bail-out in response to the 2008 financial collapse.
“It’s going to speed up the process of Tea Party members positioning themselves for a leadership run,” said Ron Bonjean, an aide to former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. “This stunning news could be the first shot in an all-out-war between the establishment and Tea Party over leadership control.”
The upset marks a shift in this year’s momentum in the intraparty power struggle between the small-government movement and Republicans aligned with the business community. Until Cantor’s loss, the pro-business forces had protected almost all of the incumbents targeted by the Tea Party.
The defeat of Cantor, 51, will add momentum to the campaign of Tea-Party endorsed Chris McDaniel in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Senator Thad Cochran in a June 24 runoff primary in Mississippi.
Cantor’s upset also will embolden movement-aligned members who have blocked House votes on such issues as changing immigration policy and funding for infrastructure, two priorities for the business community. Cantor came under attack for considering debate on rewriting the nation’s immigration laws and for lifting the debt ceiling to end a partial government shutdown last October.
Finally, Cantor’s loss may also be taken as a warning to 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls that straying from orthodoxy on immigration or other issues can be politically fatal in primaries. Florida Republicans Senator Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush, both prospective presidential contenders, have faced criticism for supporting efforts to provide legal status for undocumented immigrants.
In a shorter timeframe, one thing is clear: “This rocks the Republican conference, for sure,” said Representative Patrick McHenry of North Carolina in a reference to the party’s House leadership line-up.
Cantor had been considered the front-runner to become the next speaker. With his defeat, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican and one of the Virginian’s closest allies, is expected to vie for the No. 2 job, one lawmaker said.
McCarthy didn’t address his own plans in a statement praising Cantor’s “graciousness and leadership.”
Another prospect may be Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the House Rules Committee who previously headed the political committee that works to elect Republicans to the chamber.
Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the Tea Party-aligned House Republican Study Committee, may make a bid for the whip’s job if McCarthy vacates it, according to a party aide who requested anonymity since he wasn’t authorized to discuss the intraparty divisions.
As members jockeyed for position, Tea Party groups reveled in the victory by Brat, 49, who teaches economics at Randolph- Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.
“This is a victory to the people of his district, this is a repudiation of amnesty,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots, a group that opposed changes to the nation’s immigration laws to deal with millions of undocumented residents living here. “The people like Eric Cantor in leadership in Congress are focused on flooding our job market with more people and it will make it more difficult for people to get jobs in America.”
Boehner’s position also could be threatened if he fails to heed the lesson from Cantor’s loss, Martin said. “If he continues to push for amnesty and does not pay attention to what concerns Americans, there will be a challenge to Boehner’s speakership,” she said.
“Folks are looking for a change,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and one of the most vocal critics of his party’s House leadership. “ I think we should toss them all out and start over.”
After finishing dinner at a Capitol Hill restaurant, Boehner, 64, lamented Cantor’s loss -- the first-ever primary defeat of a House majority leader since the post was created in 1899, according to Eric Ostermeier, a political analyst with the University of Minnesota.
“Eric Cantor and I have been through a lot together. He’s a good friend and a great leader, and someone I’ve come to rely upon on a daily basis as we make the tough choices that come with governing,” Boehner said in a statement.
Democrats sought to pair Cantor’s loss with the Republican primary victory of U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina yesterday to argue that the House should embrace a Senate-passed bill that would tighten border security, rewrite temporary- worker rules and create a path for illegal immigrants already in the country to become citizens.
“Cantor’s problem wasn’t his position on immigration reform, it was his lack of a position,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote on Twitter. “Graham wrote and passed a bill and is winning big.”
Graham, who helped shepherd a bill the Senate passed last June to revise U.S. immigration laws, defeated six opponents to win nomination to a third term.
Bonjean said it will be more difficult to pass the Democratic bill because House Republicans will be spooked by Brat’s use of the issue to beat Cantor.
“It’s going to be a tough case to make that immigration is going to be brought to the House floor anytime soon,” he said.
Brat, a Tea Party activist who earned a doctoral degree in economics from American University, also had criticized Cantor as part of the Washington establishment.
“It’s disappointing, sure, but I believe in this country. I believe there is opportunity around the next corner for all of us,” Cantor said last night in conceding defeat.
Brat, during an interview on Fox News, said he ran on Republican principles, and faulted the party for “paying way too much attention to Wall Street and not enough attention to Main Street.”
“The Republican Party has been kind of taking it to the grassroots, and the grassroots is rightly upset,” said Brat, who’s married and has two children. “The only problem with the Republican principles is that no one’s following them.”
Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammell, also a teacher at Randolph-Macon, in the November election. The Republican-leaning district takes in part of Richmond and some of its suburbs.
Brent Bozell, head of ForAmerica, a limited-government group specializing in social media, said in a statement: “Eric Cantor’s loss tonight is an apocalyptic moment for the GOP establishment. The grassroots is in revolt and marching.”
Cantor’s polling expert, John McLaughlin, whose last survey showed the incumbent comfortably ahead, blamed the loss on Virginia Democrats. Since the state doesn’t register voters by party, it’s legal for partisans to cast ballots in another party’s primary.
More than 65,000 votes were cast in Cantor’s race, an increase from the 46,300 cast in the 2012 primary that he won with 79 percent of the vote.
“To lose by this margin and with this kind of turnout, Democrats had to be playing games,” McLaughlin said in an interview. “I guarantee these voters were not on our lists.”
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