Top House Republicans were not only left stunned by Eric Cantor's unexpected primary loss, but they were also stuck pondering a sticky question: Should the majority leader step down now as the No. 2 Republican?
Cantor's technical duties as leader include scheduling what bills go to the floor, along with the key role of devising and meshing the conference's overall political and legislative strategy. And there is no requirement for him to step down under internal House Republican rules, according to an aide familiar with the rules.
But House GOP leadership aides, speaking on the condition they not be identified, suggested that an argument for Cantor stepping down ASAP is that his defeat by tea-party backed Dave Brat represents a sort of "no confidence" vote from Cantor's own constituents in Virginia.
And given that, they also question whether the conference should have a rejected "lame duck" so prominently at the helm next to Speaker John Boehner through the summer and stretch run of this year's mid-term elections.
The House Republican conference planned to meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday behind closed doors at the Capitol. Cantor is expected to speak at that gathering, but it is unclear what he plans to say to his fellow Republicans.
Already, at least two members of the House majority are floating potential candidacies for Cantor's job.
But an argument in favor of keeping him around as long as possible is that Boehner and the conference don't need--in fact should avoid--a potentially tumultuous and destructive internal leadership battle at this point before the election, and that Boehner should ask Cantor to stay on as leader. There are some who see such a contest right now as potentially even an early proxy vote on Boehner himself, and his entire leaderhip team.
On Tuesday night, Cantor gave no public indication one way or the other about what he intends to do.
But if he does step down, some of the tensions that have been bubbling inside of the conference between more-conservative members with Boehner, for several years, could play out in a battle over who is to become Cantor's successor as majority leader.
Conservatives and tea-party backed members would likely point to Tuesday night's defeat of the Virginian as evidence they should have a more prominent place at the GOP leadership table.
The current No. 3 Republican, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, one of Cantor's fellow "Young Guns," might seem the obvious choice to simply move up--and possibly the least disruptive answer. For someone to leap-frog over him to become majority leader would be considered an upset in its own right. But Tuesday night showed upsets happen.
McCarthy commands a good degree of appeal to conservatives, making a point of holding "listening sessions" and often championing their viewpoints in closed-door leadership meetings. But there have been nagging complaints about whether he is much of a detail-oriented leader. And some also point to the embarrassing defeats of major legislation on the House floor, or bills that had to suddenly be pulled, as evidence of his whip miscounts and or failure to read members' true leanings before voting.
Other potential Cantor successors are seen as more directly tied to conservatives, including Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling and Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, both from Texas. Being part of the state delegation alone gives them a head start in getting support from colleagues--assuming they would have the backing of their fellow GOP Texans in the House.
Both Hensarling and Sessions are said to be considering a bid for majority leader and Sessions has begun making calls to shore up support among the conference. Should both run, they could split the Texas delegation, erasing an advantage in the race. And Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, also wants to run for leadership -- McCarthy's whip post if he move up -- according to two sources with knowledge of his plans.
Hensarling held a House GOP leadership post until the end of last session, the No. 4 post of House Conference Chairman. But he left it behind. He is widely described as not having been happy in that slot.
More recently, as Financial Services Chairman, Hensarling has of late become increasingly recognized as a foe of Cantor's on a number of issues that separate Republicans over fiscal issues.
The two clashed earlier this year when Cantor bypassed the Financial Services Committee — and previous GOP pledges to stick to regular order — to work out passage of a flood-insurance reform bill with Democrats, which Hensarling opposed. And another potential battle could soon erupt between the two over whether to recharter the little-known Export-Import bank, which conservatives oppose.
But while Hensarling is often seen as a darling of outside conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth or Heritage Action, he does not immediately appear to have a huge collection of adoring colleagues within the House Republican conference.
Sessions is also said to be looking to move up in leadership. He has staunchly conservative credentials, as well. In addition, he has previously held the chairmanship of the National Republican Congressional Committee, during which he might have collected some political chits that he could cash in now.
Of course, aides and others say that if Paul Ryan wanted to be majority leader, it would be his for the asking. But there are no indications that the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee would be interested. Ryan's vice chair on the Budget Committee, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a former chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also is said to be a favorite, but he is not necessarily seen as interested.
Others now in leadership could move up the rungs. The current chief deputy whip is Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, and he is likely to want to be whip. And perhaps presciently, he has been stepping up his visibility in recent months with members through deputy whip memos and other ways.
The current Republican Conference Chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington--the highest ranking woman among House Republicans who has had her own run-ins with Cantor--could also be a candidate to assume the whip's post if McCarthy advances to majority leader.
"Everything seems very unsettled right now," said one senior House aide.