WASHINGTON — Anticipating a swift shake-up in their leadership, House Republicans jockeyed for position on Wednesday after Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat to an underfunded and unknown political newcomer.
On the morning after his loss to David Brat, an economics professor supported by the tea party, there was quiet pressure on Cantor to step down from his post as the Republicans' second-ranking leader. He gave no public signal that he was considering doing so, although a meeting of the rank and file was set for late afternoon.The Washington Post, citing Republicans familiar with Cantor's plans, reported Wednesday afternoon that he will step down by the end of July.
Others did not wait for him to make his intentions known.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who serves as the party whip, was informing fellow Republicans he intended to run to succeed Cantor, officials said, and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas also signaled an interest.
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was hoping to replace McCarthy in his current spot, officials said.
Cantor met routinely in the Capitol during the day with Speaker John Boehner and other top leaders, but did not speak with reporters afterward.
The maneuvering took place as Brat celebrated his triumph over Cantor in an upset that shocked the party establishment and handed tea party forces their largest victory of the primary season.
"This is a miracle from God," Brat said Tuesday night, in an appearance before supporters.
But as he looked ahead to November's elections, he declined to spell out policy specifics.
"I'm a Ph.D. in economics, and so you analyze every situation uniquely," he told MSNBC in an interview in which he said he preferred to keep the focus on the "celebratory issues" of Tuesday's results.
The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for tea party forces, although last week they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and hope State Sen. Chris McDaniel will achieve victory then.
Cantor's defeat was the first primary setback for a senior leader in Congress in recent years. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both lost their seats at the polls in the past two decades, but they fell to Republicans, not to challengers from within their own parties.
Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammel in the fall, and begins as an overwhelming favorite. The district is solidly Republican, and Democratic officials said they do not anticipate committing money or other resources as long as it remains a two-man race and Cantor does not decide to mount a write-in campaign.
The outcome may well mark the end of Cantor's political career, although at 51 he has plenty of time to attempt a future comeback. Aides did not respond Tuesday night when asked if the majority leader would run a write-in campaign in the fall.The Washington Post reported Wednesday morning, again citing Republicans familiar with his plans, that Cantor will not run a write-in campaign.
But the impact of Cantor's surprise loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clearer still. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.
Many Republicans say the party can ill afford to stick to an uncompromising stand on the issue, given the increasing political influence of Hispanic voters.
And a Democrat, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, put it even more bluntly.
"For Republicans in the House, my sense is they are now squeezed between doing things the tea party way or doing things the American way," he said in an appearance Wednesday morning on MSNBC.
Appearing on the same network, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said he was worried that the message from Cantor's stunning loss may be even more congressional gridlock. Asked if he thought immigration legislation was dead, King replied, "I'm concerned that Ted Cruz supporters, Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse" to shut down the government.
"This is not conservatism to me," King said. "Shutting down the government is not being conservative."
Cantor had been tugged by two warring forces in his party and in recent weeks sought to emphasize his opposition to far-reaching immigration legislation as Brat's challenge gained force. Last month, a feisty crowd of Brat supporters booed Cantor in front of his family at a local party convention.
Still, neither he nor other House leaders betrayed any serious concern that his tenure was in danger, and his allies leaked a private poll in recent days that claimed he had a comfortable lead over Brat.
In the end, despite help from establishment groups, Cantor's repudiation was complete in an area that first sent him to Congress in 2000.
With votes counted in 99 percent of the precincts, 64,418 votes were cast, roughly a 37 percent increase over two years ago.
Despite that, Cantor polled fewer votes than he did in 2012 — 28,631 this time, compared with 37,369 then.