It took Eric Cantor less than 24 hours to announce his resignation as House majority leader (effective July 31) following his shocking primary defeat Tuesday night, a cataclysmic event for Washington which immediately touched off a race within the House Republican conference to succeed him.
Three top contenders emerged Wednesday ahead of the June 19 election: Kevin McCarthy, the House majority whip; Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chair of the Financial Services Committee; and Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chair of the Rules Committee.
McCarthy is Cantor’s natural successor, the No. 3 Republican who’s next in line for the job. The two of them, along with Rep. Paul Ryan, formed the Young Guns, a project to usher in a new generation of conservative leaders; they recruited and groomed many tea party Republicans of the class of 2010. McCarthy comes with the most experience and proximity to the job but he also carries some of Cantor’s taints, having been loyal to the leadership team that has disappointed the right by cutting minor deals with Democrats to keep the government functioning.
Cantor endorsed McCarthy to succeed him on Wednesday, saying of the whip, “He’d make an outstanding majority leader, and I will be backing him with my full support.”
Hensarling is the tea party favorite. The ambitious lawmaker and former House GOP conference chairman is a reliable vote for the party’s right flank, and was already being drafted by tea party activists to leapfrog Cantor and replace John Boehner for Speaker. The Texan declined to comment on his prospective bid when asked by TPM on Wednesday. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), who swept into the House on the 2010 wave, said he wants Hensarling to be the next majority leader. He wasn’t alone.
“There’s over 50 people that I know — that I personally know who are really excited and enthusiastic about his entry into the race,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ). “There are countless other people. This is the only guy that reaches across the big divide that we all know has been in the conference for a long, long time. We need to be uniters and not dividers, and I think Jeb Hensarling’s the only guy that can do that.”
Sessions, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee for two terms, is the consummate party loyalist. He’s a strong ally of Boehner and respected by the conference. The Texas Republican, emerging from a GOP conference meeting Tuesday afternoon, confirmed to a swarm of reporters he’ll run for majority leader, in response to a question from TPM.
“I don’t know that anybody’s really coalescing. I would say that it’s wide open,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) said Wednesday of the race for majority leader. “Those that would like to be in the queue are going to get busy really quickly.”
Before and after the conference meeting, several dozen House Republicans surveyed by TPM wouldn’t say who they’d like to see replace Cantor.
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) tweeted that he’s taking applications from prospective majority leaders “who have a record opposing amnesty.”
Wanted: Applicants for Majority Leader in US House who have a record opposing amnesty. Come see me.
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) June 11, 2014
Meanwhile, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), who supports immigration reform, said Cantor’s departure “complicates an already complicated issue” and that the issue will be important in determining his vote for a successor but “not the only litmus test.” He didn’t express a preference on who that person should be.
One top Republican who won’t seek to climb the leadership ladder is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA), the No. 4 caucus member. She took herself out of the running on Wednesday by saying she’ll remain GOP Conference Chair. “After much encouragement from my colleagues, conversations with my family, and many prayers, I have decided to remain Conference Chair at this time,” she said in a statement.
Gingrey — who will leave Congress in January after a failed Senate bid — said McCarthy, Hensarling and Sessions are “all qualified for the job.” He added: “The question is the difference in where the conference needs to go, and whether we go a little more to the center or a little more to the right.”
Does he have a preference between the three candidates?
“Not right now,” he said.