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. 
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Elahe Izadi, Sarah Mimms and Tim Alberta
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.”

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.

Contributions by Emma Roller and Matt Berman

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