Capitol Hill: The Cantor Reverberations

Published on June 11, 2014

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise defeat yesterday in the Virginia 7th District GOP primary was nothing less than stunning.  There is now a 4pm special meeting scheduled of the Republican House Conference in which Cantor is expected to step down as Majority Leader effective July 31.

*** That opens the door for an immediate election to replace him, whose date will probably be decided at the meeting this afternoon, with three names being cited by Republicans who may announce they will run to become the next House Majority Leader: Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Financial Services Committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, and Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions. ***

*** There is a calculation in Republican leadership circles that since two lose in a three way race, either Sessions or, we suspect, Hensarling will opt instead to run for the Whip’s position being vacated by McCarthy if he indeed runs for Majority Leader as is likely.***

*** A near term election to replace Cantor will absorb some of the heat of the simmering Tea Party revolt within the Republican conference but that, in turn, may spell trouble for House Speaker John Boehner — not this week, but in the December leadership elections in that his may be the only position in contention and thus a potential target if Tea Party passions don’t cool by then. Likewise, Boehner will need a minimum of 218 votes when the full House votes for the Speaker on the first day of its new sessions in January, and he can thus only afford 15 or 20 GOP defections. ***

Below are a few observations among the gatherings on Capitol Hill this morning and as restive Republicans wait for their late afternoon meeting:

First, Cantor lost for very local reasons

The only thing campaign voters felt Cantor cared about was his next step up the ladder in the House Republican leadership, but in doing so, he took his district and his re-election for granted, and had been losing support for years (his job performance approvals were down to 30% going into the primary). So despite spending ten times as much as his rival, the utterly unknown Dave Brat — who is already coming off on the national stage as a bit “out there” and our best guess he will quickly fade from the headlines —  Cantor was overwhelmed by a populist rebellion against his Beltway status, and a lousy campaign.

Nevertheless, it does not really matter why he lost, what matters is how it will be spun that he lost. Much will depend on whether the Tea Party can capitalize on the Cantor defeat to regain momentum in other key Senate and House races and that, in turn, will determine the extent to which the GOP vulnerabilities are re-opened with independent voters driven away. With the odds in their favor to retake the Senate, the GOP could again snatch defeat from the jaws of a looming victory to regain the Senate.  But for now, to make predictions about what it means for November or for fiscal policy, the debt ceiling, even immigration reform next year is still premature.

More immediately, there are two key unknowns that will shape the looming shake-up in the House Republican leadership.

Cantor and Boehner’s next moves

Cantor could have opted for a write-in campaign, and get back in the race to retain his seat, but the fact remains he lost because he is unpopular, and under Virginia’s “sore loser” laws, his would literally have to be a write-in as his name would not be allowed on the printed ballot. And with some Republicans swiftly demanding he step down as Majority Leader immediately, Cantor has  just announced he will do just that.

House Speaker John Boehner will now have to quickly decide whether to simply name a new Majority Leader to fill the vacancy until the December leadership elections, or perhaps fearing a rebellion within the rank and file if he did, call for an immediate election for the Majority Leader position. For now, our best sense of a very fluid situation is that Boehner will open it up to an election. Then we are off to the races.

What Paul Ryan will do

Ryan is the only House Republican right now who could mount an immediate and credible challenge for a more senior leadership position and could easily use the Majority Leader slot as a jumping stone to a bid to become Speaker.  Although he has lost some of his purity status with the Tea Party after cutting a budget deal at the end of 2013, he still enjoys widespread support within the House conference.

But Ryan has let it be known for some time now he is not interested in the Speakership or one of the four leadership positions but instead has his sights on the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee. Ryan is one of the few House Republicans with national ambitions and credibility, and he has long seen the Speakership as a poor platform to build on his national aspirations.

Our best sense is that Ryan will stand to the sidelines in a leadership scramble, offering his behind the scenes support to Boehner to quell or co-opt the Tea Party rebellion. That political calculation could change by December, and Ryan could still put his hat in the ring for the top spot if Boehner stumbles in his re-election as Speaker. But for now, Ryan we think is more likely than not to stick to his longer game plan with Ways and Means to give him the option of running in 2016 or later as a GOP candidate for the Presidency.

Hensarling into the leadership ranks

Nothing is a given, but the most likely outcome in the upcoming scramble for the House GOP leadership positions is for Majority Whip McCarthy to move up the leadership a notch to assume Cantor’s Majority Leader position. McCarthy has not been an especially effective whip, but he remains quite popular within the conference (which is probably why he did such a lackluster job rounding up votes as a whip).

In a sense, McCarthy is better suited for the Majority Leader position, which carries enormous status but is akin to the Vice President’s office, entailing far more ceremonial and fund raising duties than anyone in the position would ever admit, as most of the leadership power resides with the Speaker and the Majority Whip’s office. Boehner would also no doubt favor McCarthy stepping up, since few seen him as a viable candidate to have a run as Speaker.

If McCarthy was either named to the position as a caretaker by Boehner or, in November, runs for the position, the talk in the Republican ranks this morning is that House Financial Services committee Chairman Hensarling is the most likely next Majority Whip to take McCarthy’s current slot. Hensarling is the very conservative rising star within the GOP who draws on considerable Tea Party support but who at the same time in recent years has come to work more closely with Boehner.

Rules Committee Chairman Sessions is the other most likely candidate and has the ambition to step into the ring (the fourth member of the current leadership, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House Republican Conference, the caucus’s messaging shop, is out of the running due to ethics charges over improper use of campaign finances).

Other names that have cropped up include Tea Party favorites like Jim Jordan of Ohio, Tom Price of Georgia, and Steve Scalise from Lousiana. Scalise is the current chairman of the extremely conservative Republican Study Group while both Price and Jordan are former chairmen. Peter Roskam of Illinois may also be in the running and, with Scalise, has already indicated he may run.

None, however, would be likely to win a campaign as Majority Leader. While Scalise is eyeing the Majority Whip slot instead, Price is believed to want a go for the Budget Committee if Ryan moves to Ways and Means. Jordan has been laying low, and is believed to also be deferring to Hensarling.

In other words, Hensarling is all but certain to win a leadership position, but whether it is as Majority Leader or as Majority Whip is unclear, but we suspect the latter.

Boehner to watch his back in December

That brings up one last but obvious question, how does the Cantor defeat affect Boehner’s status as House Speaker? In the near term, the short answer is little, as he is firmly in control of the Speaker’s office until after the November elections, and assuming the Republicans keep the House as expected (most believe the GOP will pick up another five or six seats to widen their majority to 238 or 240 out of 435), Boehner will run for another term as Speaker in the leadership elections in December.

In the case of the Speakership, the GOP conference leadership elections only nominate its candidate for Speaker, but the actual vote for Speaker is by the new House, including the Democrats, on the opening day of the new congressional session in January.

So Boehner will have two hurdles to jump. First, he must win his party’s nomination in December, and to do so he will have to find a way to cool or neuter the lingering and still potent Tea Party rebellion. The Tea Party leaders are said to be weighing putting up a full slate of their favored candidates for all four leadership positions, which may in fact work in Boehner’s favor. But if he fails to win his party’s nomination as Speaker on a first ballot, it could open the door to a challenge from within the party, perhaps by Ryan being pressed to do so to save further internal party bloodshed.

Likewise, Boehner will again have to placate his Tea Party right in January when the full House votes for the next Speaker. If Boehner fails to win the needed majority with Republican votes, the election could go to a second ballot in which the Democrats would nominate their own Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi. She would lose of course, but then the door is opened to a very uncertain outcome.

Such a turn of events come December and January is still a low probability, but the point is, the seeds for such a prospect are being planted this week in the aftermath of Cantor’s defeat.

A wider populist revolt

It is still too soon to speculate on the impact of the Cantor defeat on the national electoral level and is equally unproductive to speculate on its impact on the shape of the 114th Congress when it opens next year.

But an interesting and telling side-note to Cantor’s defeat is the apparent high number of Democrats who voted for Brat in the Virginia GOP primary; were they tactical votes to upend the vulnerable Cantor, or were they being drawn across the party lines to the populist-infused Tea Party revolt against the establishment, be it GOP or Democrat?

Our sense is that it may well include a good element of the latter, which portends additional political upheavals across other campaigns in the 2014 House and Senate races. Some GOP pollsters are already working on what the Cantor loss could mean for the Senate race in Mississippi — where Republican veteran Thad Cochran is extremely vulnerable — or tight races like in Colorado or Louisiana where independents who may now flee the GOP in its perceived lurch back to the far right and either vote Democrat or not vote at all.

That, in turn, could derail the hopes the next Congress would be moving back towards the center and a return to at least handful of bipartisan legislation that could break the fiscal impasse and dysfunction of the last few years.

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