A day after his stunning loss to a political newcomer, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor resigned from the leadership position that he has held for more than three years — setting the stage for a nasty battle between the establishment and conservative wings of the Republican Party.
"As I grew up, I read Hebrew a lot and the Old Testament," Cantor, 51, told reporters after a meeting of the Republican leadership at the Capitol. He became the highest-ranking Jewish GOP member when he was elected majority leader in 2011.
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"You learned a lot about individual setbacks, but you also read and learn that each setback is an opportunity and that there's always optimism for the future," Cantor said. "While I may have had a suffered a personal setback last night, I couldn't be more optimistic about the future of this country."
He said he will remain in Congress until the end of his term but he would step down as Majority Leader on July 31. "It is with great humility that I do so, knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position," Cantor said.
An election to fill Cantor's position will be held on June 19, GOP leaders said.
Cantor, who was first elected to the House in 2000, lost on Tuesday to David Brat, 49, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College backed by the tea party, in the Virginia Republican primary.
With the final vote counted, Brat had 55.5 percent to Cantor's 44.5 percent — 36,110 votes to 28,898. Cantor's campaign had vastly outspent Brat in the race, $5.5 million to $200,000.
"I'm honored that I've had the privilege to serve and represent the people of Virginia's 7th District," Cantor said. The area includes Richmond and areas to the north. "People often lament about what is wrong with this town, but I want to remind you of what's right.
"I've had the honor to serve with so many very distinguished colleagues," he added. "These are members on both sides of the aisle. I have been more than honored to serve as a member of the Republican Conference and serve as their majority leader for the last several years."
Since Tuesday's loss, pressure had quietly mounted on Cantor to step down. His resignation sets up a battle that is sure to be bitter.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California has told Republicans that he would run to succeed Cantor.
But two conservative Republicans from Texas who have sparred with House Speaker John Boehner over several issues have also signaled interest in the position: Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who heads the Financial Services Committee.
A GOP source told Newsmax on Wednesday that Sessions will seek to succeed Cantor.
In addition, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise will run to replace McCarthy in his current spot if the Californian wins promotion, another source told Newsmax.
The chamber's No. 4 GOP member, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, said in a statement that she would not seek promotion and would remain as head of the House Republican Conference.
While Cantor said he did not know who was running to succeed him, he endorsed McCarthy.
"If my dear friend and colleague Kevin McCarthy does decide to run, I think he would make an outstanding majority leader," Cantor said. "I will be backing him with my full support."
In taking questions from reporters, Cantor declined to speculate why he lost to Brat, who built his campaign on showing that the incumbent was not conservative enough. "I'm going to leave the political analysis to you all," he said.
"I know my team worked incredibly hard. They did a tremendous amount of work," he added. "I'm proud of their work, grateful for what they did. In the end, the voters chose a different candidate."
Cantor called for more unity among Republicans and said that the tea party reflected many core GOP values.
"Truly what divides Republicans pales in comparison to what divides us as conservatives from the left and their Democratic Party," he said. "I hope that all Republicans will put minor differences aside and help elect a Republican house and senate, so that we may all benefit from a proper check and balance that leads or nation more secure, more prosperous and freer."
Noting that the tea party stood for "taxed enough already," Cantor added, "all of us conservatives and representatives believe that.
"My team has been heavily involved with the committees in drafting legislation and making sure that we can run the floor and be expeditious in the legislative process."
More broadly, however, the majority leader said that Washington does get things done — pointing to bills passed by the House to expand school choice, finance medical research, cut Washington spending, and protect Americans from the effects of Obamacare.
"Some people think Washington gets nothing done. Well, there's a stack of bills sitting in the Senate that shows how Republicans do get things done. We get a lot done.
"Our priority is building an America that works for the middle-class families who are struggling in this country, but there's more work to do. Conservatives have solutions that can help alleviate the middle-class squeeze and provide opportunity to all — regardless of their circumstance in life.
"I will continue to fight for each and every American who's looking to better themselves and help their families by pursuing the American dream," Cantor said. "While I will not be on the ballot in November, I will be a champion for conservatives across the nation, who are dedicated to preserving liberty and providing opportunity."
The majority leader reiterated his opposition to broad immigration reform saying that the House should move in an orderly way to address the plight of the nation's 11 million illegal aliens. Brat had attacked him claiming he supported an amnesty.
"I have always said the system is broken. It needs reforms. It is much more desirable and doable if we did it one step at a time, working towards where we have common ground," Cantor said.
"I don't believe in this 'my-way-or-the-highway' approach that the president has laid out — and I've continued to take that position.
"I've said there's common ground at the border. There's common ground. I would like to see the issue of the kids addressed by those who didn't break any laws and come here unbeknownst to them.
"I've always said there should be and is common ground if we just allow ourselves to work together," he said.
Cantor's resignation perhaps ends a rising political career. He was favored to succeed Boehner should he decide to step down after the November elections or sometime before the end of the next Congress.
When he was named to his first leadership position in 2002, chief deputy whip, the move reflected Cantor's fundraising prowess as well as his conservative voting record — and it came as Republicans were eagerly reaching out to Jewish donors for their campaigns.
But Cantor also had been seen as a potential rival to Boehner once the Ohio Republican first became speaker in 2009.
"The United States of America is the greatest gift to mankind," Cantor told reporters. "I'm confident that our nation will overcome every struggle, exceed every challenge — and share the message of freedom, prosperity and happiness to all liberty-seeking people around the world for decades to come."
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