WASHINGTON — Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., resigned as majority leader Wednesday, completing a precipitous fall after his stunning loss in a primary and setting off an internal battle to remake the upper ranks of House leadership.
Cantor’s move, effective July 31, stopped a political trajectory that would have made him the first Jewish speaker of the House and, instead, will leave him with a place in history he never sought: the first majority leader to lose a primary.
Republicans set leadership elections for June 19, and by stepping down as majority leader quickly, Cantor hoped to limit a festering struggle within the House Republican conference over who would assume his post, a feud likely to push an already conservative Republican House leadership further to the right and embolden the chamber’s most stubborn conservatives.
Cantor quickly threw his support behind his “dear friend and colleague,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority whip, the No. 3 leadership position.
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But Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas said he would seek the majority leader’s spot and would make border security — not immigration reform — his primary focus. “Our conference does need to move to a more conservative perspective,” he said.
In a closed-door meeting of House Republicans on Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker John Boehner gave a speech he said he had never expected to give. “Winston Churchill once famously said: ‘Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts,’ ” he said. “I can tell you there’s plenty of wisdom in that statement.”
In defeat, Cantor leaned on his Jewish faith. In announcing his decision to step down, he told his colleagues of a Holocaust survivor he met who put political travails in perspective. He said that in his religious studies: “You learn a lot about individual setbacks. You also learn each setback is an opportunity and there’s always optimism for the future.”
That optimism also shifted to conservative lawmakers, who only weeks ago were being marginalized by their leaders. On Wednesday, they said they received overtures all day from those who hoped to lead them next.
“There sounds like a lot of movement out there for a more conservative faction for leadership,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., who got his first text from a leadership candidate Wednesday morning.
The shock waves from Cantor’s defeat by tea-party-backed college professor David Brat — and his quick exit from the leadership stage — will have broad ramifications for the remainder of President Obama’s term and the Republican Party’s efforts to regain the White House. Conservative Republicans say their districts are seething with anger over what tea-party voters see as weak leadership in the fight against an “imperial presidency.”
“That’s what we’re seeing around America. I know in my district people are upset. People want government to be accountable, to start doing what they were sent up to do,” said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., who in 2012 defeated an entrenched but conservative incumbent in a primary.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Boehner sought to put to rest any talk of a brush fire that could sweep into the speaker’s office, saying he would seek re-election as speaker in the next Congress. Supporters had encouraged him to declare now before the House’s most conservative Republicans became too emboldened.
“With shake-ups like this, it’s really important to have a steady hand on top,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “You can’t lose both of those guys at once,” he added, referring to Boehner and Cantor.
Some conservatives indicated they may not be happy unless Boehner has a scare.
“I’m leaving an open mind to that question,” Fleming said. “I think undoubtedly everything will be up for discussion.”
The contest between McCarthy and Sessions will tug hard at the tea-party class of 2010. Sessions headed the National Republican Congressional Committee in that year, and he enters the leadership race with the large Texas delegation behind him.
McCarthy headed candidate recruitment in 2010. He pushed to expand the electoral map into long-held Democratic districts, pursued unusual candidates he believed fit the newly drawn districts of 2010, and crisscrossed the country on their behalf. He also brings his own large whip operation to the race to counter the Texans.
Sessions put himself forward as the man who beat his own tea-party challenger handily this year.
“I admire Eric and think he has done a phenomenal job, but with that said, unfortunately he lost,” Sessions said. “We have to refocus on winning.”
If McCarthy wins the No. 2 position, Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, McCarthy’s chief deputy whip, will square off against Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, for McCarthy’s House majority whip position. Scalise could seek the post regardless.
Conservatives have groused for more than a year that the top four leadership posts belong to members from Ohio, Virginia, California and Washington, all states that voted for Obama. The demand for “red state leadership” could spell trouble for Roskam should McCarthy prevail.
Other wild cards are looming. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas publicly thanked House colleagues for encouraging him to join the leadership race.
“There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts,” he said.
Republicans close to McCarthy said the Californian has nothing to fear from Sessions but a lot to be concerned about if Hensarling joins the race.