In a press conference held less than 24 hours after his stunning primary loss to tea party challenger David Brat, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced he will step down from his Republican leadership post July 31.
"While I may have suffered a personal setback last night, I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of this country," the seven-term congressman said in an emotional speech from Capitol Hill. "I’m honored that I’ve had the privilege to serve and represent the people of Virginia’s 7th District."
Cantor said he would fully back California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now the majority whip, as his successor for majority leader, but acknowledged that he still does not know who plans to run. "I can tell you that if dear friend and colleague Kevin McCarthy does decide to run, I think he’d make an outstanding majority leader and I will be backing him with my full support," Cantor said.
Currently the third-ranking member of the Republican caucus, McCarthy is an establishment conservative with close ties to House Speaker John Boehner. McCarthy has already signaled that he plans to compete for the role of majority leader, but his support for legal status for undocumented immigrants is likely to draw opposition from tea partiers inside and outside of Congress.
Texas Reps. Pete Sessions, who chairs the House Rules Committee, and Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, are also in the running for majority leader.
Since Cantor's defeat to Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., there has been much speculation as to whether Cantor failed to court the conservative base enough to break his image as a Washington insider. But Cantor played down any disparities between conservatives and Republicans, telling reporters that they all believe in the same thing.
"I do believe that what we have in common as Republicans is a tremendous amount of commitment to a better and smaller government and greater opportunity and growth for everybody. And the differences that we may have are slight and pale in comparison to the differences that we have in the left," said the Virginia Republican.
Cantor became the first person in U.S. history Tuesday night to lose his primary while holding the position of majority leader.
Cantor, who has been one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, was long considered Boehner’s conservative rival, but has gravitated towards the political center during his tenure.
One of the issues his challenger continually attacked Cantor on was immigration policy, accusing him of working with and ultimately voting for President Obama's plan for immigration reform. While Cantor denied the attacks, the issue clearly stuck with voters, even at his own campaign event last month when Republican primary voters booed him on stage.
Cantor demurred on the question of whether or not immigration became the deciding factor in his primary contest.
"I will say that my position on immigration has not changed," Cantor said. "It didn’t change before the election, during the election, or the way it is today. The system is broken, it needs reforms. I think it is much more desirable and frankly doable if we do it one step at a time, working towards where we have common ground and believe things in common.
"I don’t believe in this 'my way or the highway' the president has laid out," he said, distancing himself from the Obama administration. "I’ve said that there is common ground at the border. I would like to see the issue of the kids addressed, by those who didn’t break any laws and come here unbeknownst to them."
Cantor will serve in Congress until his term ends in January.
While he will not be on the ballot this November, Cantor said Wednesday that he will continue to "be a champion for conservatives across the nation."