Eric Cantor Loss Could Spark Revolution in House GOP

Conservatives wanted to shake up leadership. Now they have a bigger opportunity than they thought.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) (R) attend a press conference with Rep. Cath McMorris Rodgers (R-OR) April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Tim Alberta
June 10, 2014, 6:41 p.m.

Eric Can­tor is gone, and if they’re not care­ful, John Boehner and Kev­in Mc­Carthy could be next.

The earth-shat­ter­ing up­set in Vir­gin­ia’s 7th Dis­trict Tues­day night means that Can­tor, the House ma­jor­ity lead­er who has long been con­sidered the heir-ap­par­ent to Boehner as speak­er, won’t be back in the next Con­gress.

And his loss is a sig­ni­fic­ant vic­tory for a grow­ing group of frus­trated House Re­pub­lic­ans who have been plot­ting to shake up the GOP lead­er­ship struc­ture ahead of the 114th Con­gress. Those plans have centered on eject­ing Boehner from the speak­er­ship and then hop­ing for a con­sensus can­did­ate to emerge who could either chal­lenge Can­tor for the top job, or at least slide in be­hind him as ma­jor­ity lead­er.

But Tues­day night’s shock­er turns those plans up­side down. Can­tor’s loss not only means there will be a va­cant spot in lead­er­ship, it also in­vites more dra­mat­ic ac­tion from that clutch of con­ser­vat­ives who have grown in­creas­ingly dis­en­chanted with a lead­er­ship team that they view as out of touch — demo­graph­ic­ally, ideo­lo­gic­ally, and stra­tegic­ally — with the mem­ber­ship of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence.

Those con­ser­vat­ives, sud­denly smelling blood in the wa­ter, might now be em­boldened to push for a whole­sale change in lead­er­ship — oust­ing Boehner and Mc­Carthy in this Novem­ber’s con­fer­ence elec­tions, and en­ter­ing the next Con­gress with a new top three.

“It should fright­en every­one in lead­er­ship,” one con­ser­vat­ive House Re­pub­lic­an, who ex­changed text mes­sages on con­di­tion of an­onym­ity, said shortly after Can­tor’s de­feat was of­fi­cial. “They haven’t been con­ser­vat­ive enough. We’ve told them that for 3 years. They wouldn’t listen.”

The GOP law­maker ad­ded: “Maybe they will listen now.”

In­deed, if Can­tor’s de­feat of­fers a sil­ver lin­ing for Boehner and Mc­Carthy, it’s that they now have a five-month au­di­tion to con­vince those con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers that they won’t be ig­nored any longer. Boehner’s fate may already be sealed, as earli­er this year Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted that between 40 and 50 mem­bers have verbally com­mit­ted to elect­ing a new speak­er. But Mc­Carthy, who is per­haps the most per­son­ally pop­u­lar mem­ber of the lead­er­ship team, may have an out­side shot of re­tain­ing his job as ma­jor­ity whip. (He may not want it now that Can­tor, his best friend in Con­gress, has been fired.)

Asked wheth­er Can­tor’s de­feat means he and his fel­low con­ser­vat­ives will at­tempt to clean house and bring in an en­tirely new lead­er­ship team, the House Re­pub­lic­an answered: “Not ne­ces­sar­ily. The policies are what count. Not the people.”

It’s a nice sen­ti­ment, but Wash­ing­ton is driv­en by re­la­tion­ships, and the group of young con­ser­vat­ives whose en­ergy has dic­tated the mood with­in the House GOP since 2010 is likely to de­term­ine who holds the key lead­er­ship posts in 2015. The most ubi­quit­ous name is that of Jeb Hensarling, the Tex­an and Fin­an­cial Ser­vices chair­man whom con­ser­vat­ives have spent the past sev­er­al months try­ing to con­vince to chal­lenge either Boehner or Can­tor. Hensarling has denied in­terest in do­ing so, but Can­tor’s loss will only en­er­gize the re­cruit­ment ef­forts.

An­oth­er law­maker worth watch­ing is Rep. Tom Price, who is set to suc­ceed Rep. Paul Ry­an as chair­man of the Budget Com­mit­tee. Price’s al­lies have long ar­gued that the am­bi­tious law­maker will be sat­is­fied with his chair­man­ship next year and won’t throw away that op­por­tun­ity to run for a lead­er­ship post; that think­ing could change very quickly in the weeks ahead.

And, of course, there’s Ry­an him­self, who has long denied in­terest in the speak­er­ship — likely to avoid con­flict with his friend Can­tor — but who now en­joys a wide-open path to the speak­er’s of­fice.

Still, there’s no ques­tion that policy is im­port­ant, and, in­deed, the policies com­ing from the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s of­fice have been in­creas­ingly prob­lem­at­ic for some con­ser­vat­ives. Can­tor has been em­phat­ic in con­ver­sa­tions with col­leagues that he wants to pass ser­i­ous im­mig­ra­tion re­form, es­pe­cially something that helps young il­leg­al im­mig­rants who were brought here by their par­ents — or, as Can­tor calls them, “the kids.” This im­age of Can­tor as soft on im­mig­ra­tion has hardened in re­cent months, prompt­ing Dave Brat, his primary chal­lenger, to at­tack the ma­jor­ity lead­er for sup­port­ing “am­nesty.”

If the im­mig­ra­tion talk wasn’t enough to rankle some of the con­fer­ence’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers, Can­tor made more en­emies by musc­ling a flood-in­sur­ance bill through the House earli­er this year, over the ob­jec­tions of many Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing Hensarling, whose Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee has jur­is­dic­tion over the mat­ter. (Some mem­bers saw Can­tor’s ac­tions as de­lib­er­ately in­ten­ded to weak­en Hensarling, who has emerged as the con­sensus choice of con­ser­vat­ives look­ing to vault one of their own in­to the up­per­most ech­el­ons of lead­er­ship.)

Per­haps most egre­giously, Can­tor in­furi­ated a siz­able bloc of House Re­pub­lic­ans in March by ap­prov­ing a man­euver that al­lowed a con­tro­ver­sial Medi­care-re­im­burse­ment bill to pass the House without a re­cor­ded roll-call vote. As mem­bers seethed over the al­leged trick­ery, Can­tor’s of­fice dis­missed the vis­cer­al back­lash, an­ger­ing some mem­bers who were long­time sup­port­ers of the ma­jor­ity lead­er. Be­fore that, the only rum­blings of a lead­er­ship shakeup in­volved Boehner; soon after, however, mem­bers began sug­gest­ing that Can­tor was no longer a shoo-in to suc­ceed him as speak­er.

“I’m get­ting used to be­ing de­ceived by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, but when my own lead­er­ship does it, it’s just not ac­cept­able,” Rep. Matt Sal­mon of Ari­zona said after the epis­ode.

An­oth­er House Re­pub­lic­an who is friendly with Can­tor put it more bluntly: “If there’s an­oth­er vote like [that], Eric won’t be speak­er. Ever.”

Still, Can­tor hasn’t ex­actly been a foil to tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans in the House; to the con­trary, some feel the ma­jor­ity lead­er is their strongest ally on the lead­er­ship team, and have en­dorsed his as­cen­sion to the speak­er­ship. Can­tor has spent years care­fully build­ing re­la­tion­ships and de­liv­er­ing fa­vors for mem­bers of his con­fer­ence, know­ing he would need their sup­port if he were to be­come speak­er.

But even the con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers who like Can­tor per­son­ally are cel­eb­rat­ing to­night — not be­cause he was their top tar­get but be­cause the ma­jor­ity lead­er em­bod­ies a lead­er­ship team they view as weak, re­act­ive, risk-averse, and ideo­lo­gic­ally di­luted.

After the House Re­pub­lic­ans’ first term in the ma­jor­ity was ruined by open in­terne­cine war­fare, a dozen con­ser­vat­ive mal­con­tents tried — and failed — to oust Boehner at the dawn of this 113th Con­gress. The speak­er re­spon­ded by spend­ing con­sid­er­able time and en­ergy last year restor­ing re­la­tions with the right wing of his con­fer­ence, and as a res­ult, 2013 was re­l­at­ively har­mo­ni­ous for the House GOP. (Boehner even won a stand­ing ova­tion when an­noun­cing the House GOP’s sur­render 16 days in­to the gov­ern­ment shut­down.)

But the dis­il­lu­sion­ment was quickly re­kindled in this second ses­sion. A large fac­tion of House Re­pub­lic­ans came in­to 2014 de­term­ined to pro­duce a pro­act­ive agenda, and pleaded with lead­er­ship to ad­dress four areas in par­tic­u­lar — health care, taxes, pri­vacy, and wel­fare spend­ing — so as to strike a sharp elec­tion-year con­trast against Demo­crats. Boehner’s team re­jec­ted that ap­proach, opt­ing in­stead to play it safe and avoid mis­steps that could cost Re­pub­lic­ans a chance to win the Sen­ate.

“There are no big ideas com­ing out of the con­fer­ence. Our lead­er­ship ex­pects to coast through this elec­tion by bank­ing on every­one’s hatred for Obama­care,” one Re­pub­lic­an law­maker who has been or­gan­iz­ing the anti-Boehner re­bel­lion said earli­er this year. “There’s noth­ing big be­ing done. We’re re­shuff­ling chairs on the Ti­tan­ic.”

The ap­proach taken by Boehner and Can­tor may yet help Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans take back the ma­jor­ity. Iron­ic­ally, it also might have en­sured that they won’t be around to work across the Cap­it­ol with them.