The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday night set off chaos in the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday, as Republicans pondered a scenario that no one had ever contemplated.
“This is like Robespierre,” a House GOP member told The Daily Beast. “He was the leader of the revolution. Then you cut his head off.”
Cantor had played a key role helping the Republican Party regain control of the House in 2010 and was considered the speaker in waiting once John Boehner retires. Now the ardent conservative, who had been vocal in his opposition to the Obama administration, singlehandedly sabotaging a proposed “grand bargain,” had been defeated in a primary.
Republicans marched solemnly into an all-hands-on-deck meeting in a subterranean meeting room in the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. The mood was funereal.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, cast Cantor as a martyr for his party.
“Eric Cantor has been a great leader,” McKeon said. “He’s sacrificed a lot for all of us. He gave up himself, really. Being with us instead of being in his district probably cost him the election.”
Added Rep. Peter King (R-NY): “I’ve got feeling for Eric…politics is a tough business.”
Not every member was so openly emotional. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the 2012 vice presidential nominee who along with Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy had been dubbed the “Young Guns” of Republican politics, was quick to reject any approaching reporters. “I don’t have anything for you,” he said.
During the half-hour meeting, Cantor addressed his House GOP colleagues, speaking broadly about the need to push back against what he described as the bad ideas of the Obama administration, according to a member of Congress in the room.
“This is a speech I never expected to give,” Boehner said at the meeting, according to remarks distributed by his office. “We’ve been through a lot together.”
Boehner tried to rally his rank and file, telling them: “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.”
The meeting was punctuated with several rounds of applause, which could be heard from outside the room. Inside, according to several members departing the meeting, it was announced that the election to replace Cantor as majority leader would be held June 19—in just over a week. And Boehner, eager to ensure stability in the Republican leadership, announced he would be seeking another term as the top Republican in the House.
“He made the emphatic statement that he’s running for speaker next year,” Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told reporters.
Afterward, Cantor addressed the press and took questions at a press conference. Seeming more at ease than usual, the Virginia congressman, who is the only Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill, began his remarks with a nod to his religion:
“You know, growing up in the Jewish faith, you know, I grew up, went to Hebrew school, read a lot in the Old Testament, and you learn a lot 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,” he said.
The outgoing majority leader declined to engage in what he termed “political analysis,” instead talking up the House GOP’s agenda and condemning the Democratic-controlled Senate for refusing to move on legislation passed in Congress’ lower chamber. By the end, his remarks sounded no different from what he would say any other day.
With his loss, Cantor announced that he would step down from his House leadership role at the end of July. Now, with the presumed future speaker’s departure set, Republicans are ferociously debating who his successor will be. Will they back McCarthy, who has served under Cantor and Boehner in leadership and shares their quiet support for comprehensive immigration reform? Or will Republicans find an even more conservative alternative, such as Reps. Pete Sessions or Jeb Hensarling of Texas? The choice will determine whether House Republicans think their revolution has gone far enough or the Tea Party guillotines need more RINO heads.
With two Texans in the running as potential candidates, Sessions sought to diffuse any awkwardness.
“Jeb’s a very dear friend,” he said. “We’ve been friends for a long, long time. As a matter of fact, I voted for him once. I lived in his district. Let’s see what happens. I think we work very well together.”
Still, the short election span favors McCarthy, the No. 3 House Republican, as one House GOP aide told The Daily Beast: “There isn’t time [for the other candidates] to build relationships or jockey support with ‘promises.’”
Previously Boehner had been prepared to stay just one more term, But with his heir apparent gone, he could stay in Washington even longer. Then again, after Tuesday night, it would be hard for anyone in the Republican leadership to feel like they have much job security.
—With reporting from Eli Lake.