Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. On Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been at the center of a powerful Republican network; he’s had great influence over the direction of his party; he’s had direct control over Washington’s legislative agenda; and it’s been widely assumed that he would soon hold the Speaker’s gavel.
A little over 65,000 voters in central Virginia went to the polls yesterday, and about 55% of them took a sledgehammer to all of that power. The results have “left the GOP in chaos.”
On Capitol Hill, Cantor’s defeat will create enormous uncertainty in the House. Cantor, 51, had been considered the next generation’s GOP leader, who would take over for House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) when Boehner, 64, retired. In a caucus deeply divided between establishment Republicans and fire-breathing conservatives, these were the two who had shown some ability to keep order.Now, there is no heir. And there may be no order.
Julia Ioffe joked that it’s hard to know whether we’re talking about House Republicans or a “Game of Thrones” episode.
But make no mistake, the drama is real. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) told the Washington Post last night, “I don’t know where we go now as a party. I’m very concerned that we may go all the way to the right, following Ted Cruz and the shutdown congressmen, and marginalizing us as a responsible governing party.”
Some of us might argue that King’s fears have already come to fruition, but the fact that some in the party are speaking this way – out loud and on the record – reinforces the seriousness of the situation.
At this time yesterday, the political world had some settled assumptions about what to expect from congressional Republicans for the foreseeable future. This morning, those assumptions have been thrown out the window. Basic questions – Who’s in charge? How will the GOP try to govern? – weren’t easy to answer before, but they’re downright baffling now.
We don’t even know what the House Republican majority leadership team will look like by the end of the summer.
Whenever Cantor steps down from his post – either at the end of this Congress or before – the natural assumption is that House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) would step up, moving from the #3 slot to the #2 slot. But let’s not forget that McCarthy has struggled badly in his current post: on a wide variety of occasions, the California Republican has been caught completely off guard when his members have defeated important bills backed by GOP leaders. McCarthy’s basic task is to whip votes – it’s right there in his title – and he’s proven to be quite bad at it. A promotion, which would position him to become Speaker fairly soon, probably isn’t in order.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could very likely take any leadership post he wants, but by all indications, the far-right Wisconsinite is more interested in the 2016 presidential race.
So, who’s in the mix? Robert Costa published a helpful piece this morning on which members are ready to play the game of musical chairs.
One possible rival to McCarthy for majority leader is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, who is a favorite of tea party activists and known in the House for his clashes with Boehner, Cantor, and McCarthy. On Tuesday, conservative leaders such as L. Brent Bozell III were asking him to consider jumping in to the race for majority leader and possibly challenging Boehner for the speakership. Hensarling, a taciturn operator, does not have an extensive network inside the House but as a former member of the leadership and a committee chair, he has the resume that could win support from hardliners and from some centrists.Other names being floated include Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash), and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Sessions, who has been a political foe of McCarthy in the past – challenging him for the whip position in 2010 – is seen as most eager to take on McCarthy and with many allies of Boehner in his camp, he could be formidable.
There are some indications that Sessions – yes, the “witch hunt” guy – is already making a move for Cantor’s job.
Keep in mind, if McCarthy runs for Majority Leader and loses, that means there will be a new Majority Whip. If Boehner decides not to stay on, there will be a new Speaker. We’re looking at the very real possibility that, by January, all or nearly all of the House Republican leadership team will be replaced with entirely different people.
The practical effect? A caucus that’s even more conservative, even more reactionary, and even more likely to “struggle to do the most basic functions of governance.”