The news that Eric Cantor will step down as majority leader after his shock primary defeat Tuesday night threatened to rip open Republican wounds, unleashing a damaging and ideologically driven war of succession with the potential to wreak havoc on Capitol Hill.
But over the last 24 hours, GOP leaders have been working to ward off any cataclysmic intra-party showdown. And for now, at least, they’re succeeding.
Over the last few months, party leaders appeared to have mostly succeeded in beating back the tea party insurrection that has shaken the GOP in recent years: Senior Republicans in both the House and Senate had held off far-right challengers, and Speaker John Boehner had gained a measure of control over his fractious caucus.
But Cantor’s loss and resignation raised the prospect of an ugly battle between the tea party and the establishment to replace him. On the heels of Sen. Thad Cochran’s failure to defeat a tea party challenger in his own Mississippi primary, it looked to have put the wind back in the sails of conservative insurgents in Congress. One veteran GOP member worried it could unleash such “mayhem” that not only was immigration reform dead in the water, it would even be hard for the party to fulfill the basic functions of government. Democrats, eager to paint their opponents as extremists, gleefully stoked those fears. One well-sourced conservative reporter even suggested that with Cantor gone, Speaker John Boehner’s grip on power might be at risk too.
A day later, that kind of chaos and infighting is looking less likely.
In a statement released Thursday morning, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a staunch conservative and tea party favorite, said that “after prayerful reflection,” he wouldn’t be seeking Cantor’s job. That appears to leave the field mostly clear for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Whip. Even before Hensarling’s announcement, the fast-moving McCarthy said at a dinner with donors Wednesday night that he had lined up enough votes to win, Politico reported.
McCarthy still will likely face a challenge from Rep. Pete Sessions, who chairs the powerful Rules committee. But unlike Hensarling, Sessions, a former chair of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, isn’t expected to run an ideological campaign that aims to rally the caucus’s most conservative members to his banner. That means the party likely will be a spared the kind of divisive leadership fight that pits tea partiers against the current leadership.
As msnbc’s Chuck Todd put it Thursday morning: “With Kevin McCarthy, the message is: 'Hey guys, this is not the time to have a public debate. We can have it after the midterms.'”
McCarthy, who represents a largely agricultural district in central California, is a Boehner ally, and he’s certainly no favorite of the grassroots activists who give the tea party much of its sway. In a blog post that went up Thursday morning, RedState’s Erick Erickson, an influential grassroots conservative leader, savaged McCarthy as “not a friend of conservatives.”
"With Kevin McCarthy, the message is: 'Hey guys, this is not the time to have a public debate. We can have it after the midterms.'"'
“House Republicans looked on the biggest electoral surprise of the year and are giving it the middle finger,” Erickson wrote.
But through skillful managing of relationships in his role as Whip, McCarthy appears to have won grudging acceptance, at worst, from tea partiers in Congress. They’ve made barely a peep in response to the growing likelihood that McCarthy will get Cantor’s job.
Of course, McCarthy’s likely ascension could do little more than buy the GOP time before the inevitable ideological showdown. Boehner has signaled that he might step down as speaker before too long, and McCarthy would likely be his heir apparent. With an increasingly southern, white, and conservative Republican caucus, and little chance of losing the majority soon thanks to ruthless gerrymandering, tea party members might put up more of a fight at that point.
Even now, the party’s far right wing is looking to flex its muscles in the wake of Cantor’s loss.
“This election should be a reminder to all in Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- that the conservative base is alive and well, and the American people will hold us all accountable,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a potential 2016 presidential nominee, said in a statement Tuesday night. “Washington needs to listen to the people, stop spending money we don't have, and stand up and defend the Constitution.
And even if Republicans do manage to avoid a damaging leadership fight, there's another problem: By making members even warier than before of being challenged from the right, Cantor's shock loss will almost certainly make it harder for the party to moderate its extreme stances on a range of issues, most notably immigration. And if it can't do that, it's chances for 2016 and beyond don't look good.
In the final analysis, that may be the most important long-term effect of Tuesday night's events.