Shockwaves are reverberating across Capitol Hill after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to Tea Party upstart Dave Brat. A seven-term incumbent, Cantor had largely been seen as the heir apparent to House Speaker John Boehner and had amassed an impressive multimillion-dollar war chest. I’ve heard his internal polls as of last week had him poised to win by more than 30 points.
Tuesday night was the first time a sitting House majority leader has been defeated in a primary in the history of our Republic stretching back to 1789, reports Fox News anchor Bret Baier. So what happened to Cantor? Brat effectively painted the congressman as too liberal for his congressional district, calling him a profligate spender who also supported allowing the children of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. My sense is that Cantor’s defeat will table whatever enthusiasm remained for the House to pass comprehensive immigration reform before the November midterm elections. If the majority leader can go down to defeat by a little known college professor who made opposition to immigration reform a major part of his platform to replace Cantor, the appetite for moving forward may well have been extinguished.
There was a strong reluctance Tuesday night from rank-and-file members of the House Republican Conference, as well as the leadership, to speak on the record about what Cantor’s defeat means for Republicans moving forward. One thing is clear: The shuffle to replace Cantor has already begun. While Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House majority whip and next in line behind Cantor, is sure to run for the upcoming vacancy, his election is not a foregone conclusion at this point. Look to former Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), conservative darling Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), and Pete Sessions (R-TX) as potential candidates to mount strong challenges. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has long been focused on wielding the gavel as the next chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the next session of Congress, but Cantor’s defeat is sure to have many—if not Ryan himself—questioning what his next step up the rung of the leadership ladder should be.
Now is when the real horse-trading will begin. When I worked as a senior adviser to then-Rep. John Kasich (R-OH), now governor of Ohio, I helped manage his bid to leap past more senior members to become House Budget Committee chairman when Republicans were vaulted to the majority after a 40-year absence in 1994. I learned through hands-on experience that vocal support for the presumed front-runner McCarthy means little at this point; only once the voting begins behind closed doors will a solid “aye” vote for the current House majority whip be tallied. No outward manifestation of support is real until the member’s vote is cast.
While McCarthy is widely respected by his Republican colleagues in the House, he has never had the lock-step fervor and support enjoyed by then-House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-GA) as he sought the speaker’s gavel. There have been many grumblings that Boehner and Cantor courted the support of the Tea Party to wrest control of the House from the Democrats but that once safely in power, they ignored those who brought them to the dance.
While that is perhaps unfair as an overall assessment, Boehner and Cantor’s willingness to negotiate with President Obama over a “grand bargain” on the budget, as well as their readiness to consider comprehensive immigration reform after Obamacare was rammed through the Congress, left many House Republicans wary of the intentions of their leadership.
Attention will now shift to Boehner to articulate a clear path forward for Republicans to assess the ramifications of the loss of their majority leader. I anticipate Boehner will rally his troops with a commitment to reduce spending, halt immigration reform efforts before the midterm elections, and confidently encourage members to hold firm to conservative principles.
One thing is for certain: No one is safely guaranteed reelection in this volatile election cycle. House Republicans would be wise to reflect on that in the days ahead. Distrust and disgust with Washington, D.C., has put a pox on all of those elected to serve in the House of Representatives—the People’s House. I sense the people are tired of the partisan bickering on one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and disgusted by President Obama’s recent trade of five hardened terrorists for a soldier who at best walked away from his unit. Cantor’s loss Tuesday night is a clear indication that all electoral expectations should be thrown out the window. An uneasy and unhappy electorate has spoken in June, and we should expect more surprises between now and November.