WASHINGTON — Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s humiliating defeat Tuesday sounded the opening gun for an unexpected Republican leadership scramble that could vault California’s Kevin McCarthy to the House of Representatives’ top spot.
But McCarthy, currently the chamber’s majority whip and No. 3 Republican, is not the only GOP lawmaker seeing opportunity in Cantor’s primary loss. Other ambitious up-and-comers are likewise counting votes and calculating odds in this real-life version of “House of Cards,” or maybe it’s “Game of Thrones.”
“I think Kevin is well liked,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, “but that’s why we have elections.”
The immediate opening created by Cantor’s primary defeat to David Brat, a previously unknown Randolph-Macon College professor, is the job of majority leader, the second most powerful post in the House, one rung below speaker. It’s also the presumptive next step toward becoming speaker of the House.
Cantor indicated Wednesday that he would be stepping down from the majority leader’s position on July 31. His replacement will be selected in private balloting among the 233 House Republicans on June 19.
Cantor spoke to reporters late Wednesday afternoon following an at-times emotional meeting of the House Republican caucus. Asked whether he would back anyone for the post he is giving up, Cantor said that if McCarthy seeks the job, he would support him.
Cantor also praised the tea party, which has celebrated his defeat because it has long viewed the majority leader, despite a solid conservative voting record, as too willing to compromise on issues like immigration and the government shutdown. Still, the Virginia lawmaker said, “I think this town should always be about striking common ground.”
McCarthy hasn’t officially said that he would seek Cantor’s job, but it would be hard to find someone on Capitol Hill who believed otherwise. That would create an opening for the majority whip’s position, and Republican Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois have announced they will both seek the post.
Other openings could be created further down the leadership ladder, depending on what happens. The fact that McCarthy already has a whip operation in place could give him an advantage, since the election will be held in a week.
On a day rich in rumor and short on certainty, the names of other real or potential House leadership candidates include Texas Republicans Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee; and Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
“These guys are all conservative,” noted John Feehery, a former top aide to several House GOP leaders, while noting that “members don’t necessarily vote on ideology, but on effectiveness.”
Hensarling, presumed to be running by Capitol Hill observers, stopped short of saying he was entering the race.
“I am humbled by the many people who have approached me about serving our Republican Conference in a different capacity in the future,” Hensarling said in a statement. “I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts.”
The Texans have a built-in advantage with the size of the Lone Star State’s Republican delegation _ 24 members_ but one that gets diluted with two candidates in the race. They also would benefit from a clamoring among many members for a red state leader, since all the other people in leadership come from blue or purple states.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman and fourth-ranking GOP lawmaker, took herself out of the leadership shuffle. McMorris Rodgers is the GOP’s highest-ranking woman in Congress.
Still, “it’s a seismic shift that will create interesting dynamics in the Republican caucus,” noted Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif.
The dynamics are all the trickier because of recurring questions about how long current House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will keep his physically and politically exhausting job. The 64-year-old Boehner has struggled to corral a sharply divided caucus.
One major fissure is the split between mainstream Republicans and conservatives aligned with the tea party movement, newly emboldened by the taking down of Cantor. His defeat has been attributed to a variety of reasons, including his willingness to entertain different approaches to solving the immigration problem, which the tea party and its allies in Congress strongly oppose.
With a congressional district in California where Hispanics make up 37 percent of the population, McCarthy, too, could face pressure: from the tea party to toe its line, and from constituents to push reform. Until now, his caution on immigration has frustrated some of his constituents, including agribusiness leaders who have been urging more aggressive action.
McCarthy, assuming he seeks the majority leader’s post, also could run into considerable pressure to give a leadership voice to the most vocal of Southern conservatives.
“I think there’s been a geographic area of the country that has not been represented in leadership, and I think that would be determinative of what happens,” noted Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.
Texan Sessions taps into the mainstream forces led by Boehner, who appointed him chairman of the Rules Committee, which determines what legislation and amendments go to the floor. He also had a successful two-term run as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
After helping lead the GOP to regaining the House majority in the 2010 elections, Sessions considered challenging McCarthy for whip but was rewarded with other perks and was asked to lead the NRCC for another cycle.
Hensarling has positioned himself as more conservative than Boehner.
“Hensarling is a little less unctuous than Cantor,” said Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson. “Hensarling now has a chance. He’s seen as going far enough to the right for the tea party.”
McCarthy, a genial, prematurely silver-haired former member of the California state Assembly, first won election to the House in 2006. The 49-year-old lawmaker entered the House leadership in 2011 with his selection as whip, the party’s chief vote counter.
With a safely Republican district that stretches from Bakersfield north through rural Tulare County, McCarthy has been secure enough at home to funnel the money he raises back into other Republican coffers. This has become a common means of rising through House ranks.
During the 2012 election cycle, his Majority Committee Political Action Committee steered $1.2 million to GOP candidates.
Hensarling’s Job, Economy and Budget Fund distributed $651,000 among his fellow Republicans, records show, while Sessions’ Pete PAC contributed $415,000.
McCarthy is also a reliable conservative vote, scoring 100 percent on the vote ratings compiled by groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee.
Unlike Hensarling and Sessions, though, McCarthy last October joined Boehner, Cantor and McMorris Rodgers in voting for the measure that raised the national debt ceiling, reopened the federal government and avoided a government default.
Stephanie Haven and Rob Hotakainen of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report