How Eric Cantor's loss leaves the GOP with an uncertain future

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Less than 24 hours after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor got ambushed in a GOP primary, shell-shocked Republicans gathered in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.

The Virginia Republican gave a short speech, saying he would give up his leadership post at the end of July. Then the man he was once widely expected to replace -- Speaker John Boehner -- got up to talk.

'Kevin has done an excellent job as whip. I think people appreciate his accessibility and his political skills.'

There had long been chatter that Boehner, 64, might retire. He had bought a condominium in Florida and made allusions to his father's early death. But Boehner put that talk to rest immediately, making clear that he plans to stand for a third term as speaker next January.

“That’s right,” Boehner announced. “I’m all-in.”

The stunning downfall of Cantor has clearly fortified Boehner’s power in the eyes of many House Republicans. Cantor was the only member with the political juice to take the gavel from Boehner, and some of his allies had urged him to do so. But even if Cantor had somehow forced Boehner out — an unlikely scenario — it would have been a stable, orderly changing of the guard.

Cantor's defeat took the snap out of Boehner's leadership team. It left the Republican majority without an obvious successor to the speaker, and it robbed the GOP of valuable experience in the day-to-day tasks of raising money, setting the political agenda and keeping legislation moving through the House.

Cantor's replacement will be chosen on June 19 by secret ballot. The winner must win an outright majority, which theoretically could take more than one round of voting.

The overwhelming favorite is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy, 49, was elected in 2006 and soon afterward was tapped by Cantor to serve as the Virginian's chief deputy minority whip. He was elected majority whip by his peers when Republicans won the majority in 2010.

The Californian is well-liked and considered a keen campaign and messaging strategist, as well as the kind of telegenic, charismatic communicator that House Republicans desperately need.

The GOP members have worked closely with him for the last four years and hope he will calm the leadership jitters created by Cantor’s departure.

But some Republicans have privately questioned his management skills. His whip operation has taken heat for failing to deliver 218 votes on a few high-profile, must-pass bills, sometimes after the bill was under consideration, forcing the leadership to cancel a previously scheduled vote.

“It’s commonplace among Republican circles to casually talk about his lack of judgment and political skills and vote-counting skills,” one GOP operative said.

McCarthy has no announced opponent. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chair of the powerful House Rules Committee, withdrew from consideration on Thursday night, but not before taking a jab at McCarthy's leadership ability and urging a more conservative posture by the GOP.

“The agenda moving forward needs to be a conservative agenda that we start with our core of our membership and work to make everybody comfortable with what we’re trying to accomplish,” Sessions said earlier Thursday. “We, several times, have found ourselves tangled in our inability to get all of our team together.”

But with the votes and the confidence of key members flowing to McCarthy, Sessions struck a conciliatory note in his withdrawal statement.

"Today, it became obvious to me that the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party," he said. "At this critical time, we must remain unified as a Republican conference."

Rep. Tom Cole has close ties to Boehner and is considered somewhat of an elder statesman within the GOP conference. The Oklahoman is supporting McCarthy, signaling that the majority whip is the favored candidate of the conference’s pragmatic conservatives. Assuming McCarthy becomes majority leader, the transition from Cantor would be relatively seamless from a policy and political perspective.

“Kevin has done an excellent job as whip,” Cole said. “I think people appreciate his accessibility and his political skills, which are considerable. And I just feel like he earned the next step up the ladder."

Fellow Californians also rallied behind McCarthy.

“McCarthy’s strengths are his interpersonal relationships with members,” said Rep. John Campbell, who served with McCarthy in the state legislature. “He’s just really, really, really good at that. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

Even so, McCarthy was taking nothing for granted, and during the day Thursday he lobbied members on the House floor to support his candidacy.

A faction of about two dozen conservative Republicans is trying to recruit another candidate to the right of McCarthy, who has endorsed some of the same immigration reform provisions that hurt Cantor in his bid for an eighth term.

“I'm looking for a candidate that doesn't support some form of amnesty,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, referring to legislative proposals to legalize or find a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

King and his allies felt that House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas would be the strongest conservative rival to McCarthy, but Hensarling declined to be considered.

With only eight years experience, McCarthy would be a relative greenhorn as majority leader. Cantor, for instance, spent eight years toiling in the lower leadership ranks before easily being elected majority leader in 2010.

McCarthy would also become a leading candidate to succeed Boehner in 2017, assuming the speaker departs after 2016 and the GOP remains in the majority. In he does move up to speaker, his rise would be lightning-fast for an institution that reveres leaders with long experience and a proven record in the chamber.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., for example, served a decade in the House before becoming, in 1988, arguably one of the most effective minority whips in history. He was elected speaker six years later, when Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Both Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., now minority leader, were in office two decades before taking the speaker's gavel in 2007 and 2011, respectively.

The lack of experience will also be evident in the lower leadership posts.

The three lawmakers running for House whip to succeed McCarthy are Steve Scalise, 48, who took office in 2008; Peter Roskam, 53, elected in 2007; and Marlin Stutzman, 37, elected in 2010.

Only Roskam of Illinois has House leadership experience. Scalise, a Louisianian, has served since last year at the helm of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of House conservatives. Stutzman, who represents an Indiana district, argues that his inexperience could be an advantage because some members are seeking new blood in the leadership.

While not overwhelmingly popular, Cantor was deeply respected for his ability to manage the floor schedule and plan the party’s legislative agenda.

Everyone on Capitol Hill assumed that if Boehner’s successor was a Republican, it would be Cantor. “He’s one of the best leaders that our party has had,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., told the Washington Examiner.

McCarthy will be hard pressed to match Cantor's floor skills, especially in a short time period. If he falls noticeably short, the contest to succeed Boehner could turn into an epic showdown between Tea Partiers and the so-called Establishment.

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Susan Ferrechio

Chief Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

David M. Drucker

Senior Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner