Eric Cantor Says Goodbye After an Emotional GOP Meeting

The House majority leader announced Wednesday that he’ll be stepping down from leadership, with a special election for his job slated for next week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) arrives for a news conference after telling the Republican caucus that he will resign his post at the U.S. Capitol June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Tim Alberta Sarah Mimms and Elahe Izadi
June 11, 2014, 12:46 p.m.

House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor an­nounced at a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon press con­fer­ence that he will be step­ping down from lead­er­ship fol­low­ing his Tues­day primary loss.

“I may have had a — suffered a per­son­al set­back last night,” Can­tor said. “I couldn’t be more op­tim­ist­ic about the fu­ture of this coun­try.”{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5023) }}

The press con­fer­ence fol­lowed a spe­cial meet­ing with House Re­pub­lic­ans where Can­tor told the caucus of his de­cision. The mood of the meet­ing was grim, ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple law­makers who left with sol­emn body lan­guage.

“It was real quiet in there. Nobody wanted to go to the mi­cro­phones,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

“It was tough. It was not a meet­ing I thought we’d have,” said Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz of Utah, adding that he nev­er ex­pec­ted Can­tor to lose his primary.

“He’s a be­loved per­son,” Chaf­fetz said. “He’s a won­der­ful, won­der­ful hu­man be­ing and a great friend.”

Sev­er­al mem­bers de­scribed the meet­ing as emo­tion­al, with trib­utes from both House Speak­er John Boehner and Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy.

There will be a spe­cial elec­tion next Thursday to de­cide on the new ma­jor­ity lead­er, with sev­er­al can­did­ates — in­clud­ing Mc­Carthy — already start­ing to cam­paign. Mc­Carthy told sup­port­ers earli­er Wed­nes­day that there could be two elec­tions: one for ma­jor­ity lead­er next week and one for ma­jor­ity whip, if he wins and va­cates the po­s­i­tion.

Mem­bers said that there was no dis­cus­sion of a po­ten­tial suc­cessor in the meet­ing, aside from an an­nounce­ment of the elec­tion date, and Mc­Carthy did not men­tion his bid.

But at the press con­fer­ence, Can­tor made clear that, if Mc­Carthy runs, he’s his guy. “I think he’d make an out­stand­ing ma­jor­ity lead­er. And I will be back­ing him with my full sup­port.”

There were mul­tiple stand­ing ova­tions throughout the closed af­ter­noon meet­ing, and Speak­er Boehner soun­ded like he was chok­ing up, ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple mem­bers. Rep. Peter King of New York said Boehner spoke about everything the two had ex­per­i­enced to­geth­er.

“The en­tire room could not have been more sup­port­ive for Eric Can­tor,” said Rep. Jeff Den­ham of Cali­for­nia. “I’ve nev­er seen our con­fer­ence stand up and cheer and give that num­ber of stand­ing ova­tions as we did today.” Rep. Tim Wal­berg of Michigan even de­scribed the meet­ing as a “cel­eb­ra­tion” of Can­tor.

“He’s com­ing back some­where, some­way. He’s a lead­er,” Wal­berg said, adding: “The book is not yet writ­ten on Eric Can­tor.”

“It’s like some­body said, ‘I went in there to cheer Eric up, and he cheered me up.’ I think he’s handled it very well,” House Armed Ser­vices Chair­man Buck McK­eon said. “Had to be such a total shock to every­body. But, you move on.”

It ob­vi­ously wasn’t all sunny and smiles, though.

“My heart is broken,” said Rep. Ren­ee Ellmers, who had faced a primary chal­lenge of her own in North Car­o­lina based on her stance in fa­vor of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “I know how hard Eric Can­tor works, I know what he has meant to our con­fer­ence and how he had been so in­stru­ment­al to bring­ing us in­to the ma­jor­ity.”

Ellmers was a mem­ber of the 2010 tea-party class. “I’ve seen all the work and the pay­off that’s taken place. We’re all feel­ing this pain right now.”

But it won’t be long now be­fore the race for Can­tor’s job really heats up. Just when will that start?

“Maybe yes­ter­day,” Rep. Phil Roe of Ten­ness­ee said with a laugh. “They don’t have much time here to or­gan­ize a cam­paign.”

Be­cause of that tight turn­around, Mc­Carthy enters the con­test to re­place his friend with a sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vant­age in terms of in­fra­struc­ture and — of course — vote-count­ing ex­per­i­ence. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has been men­tioned on sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive wish lists for lead­er­ship, said that he will not run for ma­jor­ity lead­er.

But even if Mc­Carthy wins, there is talk among mem­bers of a strong chal­lenger — per­haps Jeb Hensarling — passing on next week’s con­test and lay­ing the ground­work for Novem­ber’s elec­tions, when lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions will be de­cided for the next Con­gress.

The race for whip is likely to be com­pet­it­ive as well. In ad­di­tion to Reps. Steve Scal­ise of Louisi­ana and Peter Roskam of Illinois, one mem­ber who has been men­tioned as a po­ten­tial can­did­ate for that job is Rep. Ann Wag­n­er of Mis­souri. Asked wheth­er she planned to run for whip, Wag­n­er de­clined com­ment.

Mean­while, Can­tor’s primary op­pon­ent, Dave Brat, will ad­vance to face Demo­crat Jack Tram­mell in the race for Can­tor’s seat.

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