Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, will resign his leadership position within weeks, according to leadership aides. The move follows a stunning defeat in a primary election Tuesday in which voters rejected him in favor of a more conservative candidate.
The move culminated a precipitous fall for Cantor, who was thought to be a likely successor to Speaker John A. Boehner.
By stepping down as majority leader, an aide to Cantor said, he hoped to limit a festering struggle within the House Republican caucus over who would assume his post.
Cantor attended a meeting with other members of the leadership Wednesday in advance of a larger meeting of Republican members later in the day. He definitively told aides and other Republican leaders that he would not mount a write-in campaign this fall against the Tea Party candidate, David Brat, who defeated him soundly in the Virginia Republican primary.
He declared, “To run a write-in campaign is to run not as a Republican, and I am a Republican,” according to witnesses who were at an extended leadership meeting in the Capitol.
Top House Republicans called a meeting of all Republican members as the scramble to remake the Republican leadership swung into high gear just hours after Cantor’s surprise defeat. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican, made it clear he will seek Cantor’s soon-to-be-vacant No. 2 slot. But he will be challenged by Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the House Rules Committee chairman.
Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, McCarthy’s chief deputy whip, will square off against Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, for McCarthy’s House majority whip position.
But other wild cards are looming. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas publicly thanked House colleagues for encouraging him to join the leadership race.
“There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts,” he said.
Other potential challengers include Reps. Tom Price and Tom Graves of Georgia.
The contest between McCarthy and Sessions will tug hard at the Tea Party class of 2010.
Sessions headed the National Republican Congressional Committee the year of the Tea Party wave, and he enters the leadership race with the large Texas delegation behind him.
But McCarthy headed candidate recruitment in 2010. He pushed to expand the electoral map into long-held Democratic districts, pursued unusual candidates that he believed fit the newly drawn districts of 2010 and crisscrossed the country on their behalf. He also brings his own large whip operation to the race to counter the Texans.
House Republicans said the longer the fights fester below the surface, the more chance the campaigns could turn ugly and spread, sweeping in other targets, even Boehner. One senior House Republican said the party “can’t have a leadership race muddle all that we do until the November election,” and he encouraged leaders to make sure the races wrap up before the July 4 recess.
Another member said the faster the races can be run, the better the chance that McCarthy has to become majority leader - and Cantor wants to smooth his advance. Otherwise, he added, “chaos could rein.”