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GOP leadership fight tests impact of Eric Cantor loss

Eric Cantor's primary loss was a political earthquake, but the House GOP might choose similar establishment leaders on Thursday.
House Republican Leaders Speak To Media After Republican Conference Meeting
House Republican Whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), leaves a meeting of the House Republican conference on June 18, 2014.

House Republicans are set to elect new leaders Thursday in the wake of Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary loss. But while Cantor’s defeat was a seismic event that signaled even the highest ranking Republicans are vulnerable to conservative challenge, it’s unclear how different the House GOP will actually look after the votes come in.

The race to replace Cantor is in some ways an ideological proxy for the David vs. Goliath race that eliminated him in the first place.

The strong front-runner is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the current majority whip and a longtime ally of Cantor. Cantor and McCarthy, along with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., branded themselves as the “young guns,” part of a new generation of Republican leaders ready to remake the party for the post-Bush era. In this power trio, Cantor was billed as the “leader,” Ryan the “thinker,” and McCarthy the “strategist.”

McCarthy is an old-school political operator, the kind who carefully builds support behinds the scenes, maintains a network of influential lobbyists and keeps close tabs on individual members’ needs and interests. Years of backslapping and fundraisers give him a solid base of support to start the race – in fact, it was enough to convince experienced rival Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, to drop out of the leadership race last week after gauging his support.

Based on his lengthy tenure in leadership already, McCarthy would be unlikely to rock the boat significantly. That’s left some Republicans pining for a more ideological option with closer ties to the tea party wave that washed out Cantor last week.

Enter Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), a rising star in the GOP’s conservative class of 2010 who enjoys a national profile with the grassroots.

Labrador threw his hat in the ring after Sessions dropped out, pledging to provide a more principled conservative alternative. He’s considered a major underdog.

“McCarthy’s support is pretty soft,” Labrador told The Washington Post. “Even the people who say they’re supporting him are not strongly supporting him. I have not had many people say they’re 100% excited about Kevin.”

Tea party advocacy group FreedomWorks is backing Labrador, and he has the strong support of a small group of quirky libertarians like Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., and Rep. Thomas Massie, R-KY, who have clashed with leadership in the past. 

But Labrador’s candidacy could set the tea party movement back, as well, if it fails to garner significant support.

Last year a group of tea party Republicans, including Labrador, tried to stage a coup against Speaker John Boehner at the start of the new Congress. While the plot foreshadowed the difficulties Boehner would have lining up his party during the shutdown fight, it was also an embarrassingly mismanaged failure. At one point one of the coup leaders, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, was photographed on the House floor going over a purportedly top secret list of supporters on his iPad, the names clearly visible to reporters.

Labrador, who has struggled this week to contain a civil war within the Idaho GOP back home, may not be an effective enough organizer to seriously threaten McCarthy. But, as Labrador notes, he does have one advantage he didn’t have in his quest to overthrow Boehner -- a secret ballot.

McCarthy has not been known for his tight grip on his party in his role as whip, either. He and Boehner have failed to corral members on a number of high-profile votes, like Hurricane Sandy relief and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, forcing them to turn to Democrats for help passing them.

Both candidates are on Cantor’s left when it comes to immigration, an issue that David Brat, who won the GOP nomination in the race for Virginia's 7th Congressional District, used to great effect in his primary campaign. Labrador worked on a bipartisan immigration group before dropping out in a dispute over health care. McCarthy is one of only a handful of Republican lawmakers who have explicitly backed a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.

The more competitive race is for McCarthy’s current position of majority whip. Here, the party’s more conservative wing has a decent chance at finally securing a top leadership position. 

Like the race for leader, one of the candidates is associated with the current regime. Rep. Pete Roskam, R-Ill., is chief deputy whip under McCarthy and closely associated with Cantor’s more establishment wing. 

His chief rival is Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., the chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), an influential policy group that includes 173 Republican members, and his backers claim to have over 100 of the 117 Republican votes needed to win the whip race.

The RSC is best known within the House known for offering up alternative budgets that are even further to the right than Paul Ryan’s. One of them almost passed the House in 2011 once when Democrats abstained on the vote, forcing GOP leaders to scramble to prevent the ultra-austere budget from superseding Ryan’s plan. 

Scalise also is banking on regional support. The increasingly southern GOP caucus might be uncomfortable having all three of its top leaders come from states President Obama won in 2012 and Roskam has tried to counter this perception by pledging to appoint a red state deputy. 

Scalise and Roskam faces a long shot challenge from another conservative candidate, 37-year old Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who is looking to gain support from newer members elected in 2010 and 2012 that now make up much of the caucus. While highly unlikely to win, he could tip the balance if he sucks some right-wing support from his rivals.