WASHINGTON - House Republicans on Wednesday plunged into a regional and ideological struggle over the prospect of new leadership, with a flash campaign for top jobs that will echo the internal battles that have roiled the national GOP for the last five years.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.) announced Wednesday that he was stepping down from his role as majority leader after an embarrassing primary defeat Tuesday night. His statement prompted GOP lawmakers of various ideological stripes to launch bids to succeed the onetime rising star, who had become the heir apparent to House Speaker John A. Boehner. Fault lines quickly developed inside an already fractured caucus that has grown increasingly conservative since the 2010 elections swept Republicans into control of the House.
After an emotional meeting with GOP lawmakers, Cantor threw his "full support" behind his longtime lieutenant, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, a genial 49-year-old with close ties to many members of the huge 2010 class. A strong fund-raiser, McCarthy represents the conservative establishment within the party.
Immediately, he faced a threat from two conservative Texas chairmen - Reps. Jeb Hensarling, head of the Financial Services Committee, and Pete Sessions, head of the Rules Committee. A onetime member of leadership, Hensarling has emerged as the choice of conservatives who cheer his battles with Boehner and Cantor over issues such as flood-insurance laws and reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.
Should McCarthy win, a similar battle is set to play out to fill his No. 3 slot in leadership.
Hoping to avoid a potentially divisive campaign period, Boehner's leadership team scheduled a relatively speedy race, with secret ballots to be cast next Thursday, giving contestants only eight days to make their cases against one another, even though Cantor intends to stay on as majority leader through the end of July.
During Wednesday's meeting, Boehner warned rank-and-file members that they should not let the coming fight rip them apart or squander the political advantages he saw building in their favor as a result of various stumbles by the Obama administration.
"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," Boehner said in the closed-door meeting, according to remarks distributed afterward by his aides.
The forces at play in the Cantor defeat represented the same ones at the heart of the battle for the GOP's ideological soul since George W. Bush exited the White House in January 2009. An establishment favorite, Cantor was one of his party's top fund-raisers, with deep ties to Wall Street and Silicon Valley. His primary opponent, college professor David Brat, ran a shoestring campaign as a conservative populist, against immigration legislation and against big banks.
Brat's views represent those of up to a third of the 233 House Republicans, many of whom have caused complications for Boehner and Cantor since 2011, when the GOP took control of the House. The question ahead is whether enough Republicans want to push in that direction in their leadership races as well as the legislative agenda.
Cantor, after receiving several standing ovations from his colleagues inside the Capitol basement meeting room, told reporters he remained hopeful that the coming leadership votes would not split the party ahead of what could be a solid showing in the November election.
"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."
Number of House majority leaders to lose in a primary before Eric Cantor.
Cantor's operating expenditures
this election cycle.
David Brat's spending.
Number of times Brat's single television ad ran.
Number of times
Cantor's ads ran.