House Republicans will vote on their leadership Thursday, but the outcome will essentially keep them in a holding pattern, with the real contest months if not years away.
Though the reason for the election was the shocking primary loss by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the immediate drama will end with his replacement as majority leader. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio will retain the top spot, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who previously held the No. 3 spot, will ascend to Cantor’s position. Such an outcome would not represent any significant change in course for the party.
But the departure of Cantor, who had positioned himself as the inevitable successor to Boehner, significantly altered the dynamic of future House Republican leadership politics. Now the coming months will determine who can emerge as heir apparent to Boehner in the absence of Cantor and get established as the new voice and face of the House majority.
Will it be McCarthy, if he can demonstrate the leadership skills required to shepherd the sometimes unruly conservative majority, despite his roots in blue-state California? Will it be one of the committee chairmen, like Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who passed on this leadership fight but will now wield increased power with Cantor gone? Or can some surprise candidate rise up and find a way to unite the House Republican factions?
“When Boehner steps down, it will be a free-for-all,” predicted one top House Republican official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal party politics.
The key factor is the status of Boehner. Significant uncertainty had remained about whether the man who has led the House since 2011 would run again for speaker, given his frustrations with his own members and some of their very public frustration with him. Allies said Boehner himself might not have known what he would ultimately do.
Cantor’s abrupt and unforeseen departure from the leadership quickly put to rest any talk of Boehner’s retirement.
Members of his circle said they immediately made clear to the speaker that he could no longer even consider stepping down, because it would leave the fractious House Republican conference without its top two leaders and an extremely short list of colleagues able to fill that void.
The day after Cantor’s loss, Boehner made clear to his colleagues that he intended to run again for speaker, and the declaration was met by many with relief. The shake-up has strengthened his hand in many respects, giving him stronger control of the agenda.
“Now he really is the indispensable man,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
However, it already seems an open question whether Boehner, who some believe was ready to walk away at the end of this year, will run again in 2016. That means that sometime as early as next year, Boehner could make clear that he is stepping aside, and the jockeying to replace him could really begin.
If he wins as expected Thursday, McCarthy, who recruited many members of the 2010 class that delivered control of the House to the Republicans, would have a clear advantage in any future contest. At the same time, there is a risk involved. If he does not perform well as majority leader in the eyes of his fellow House members, his chances at a future speakership could dim.
McCarthy is being opposed by Rep. RaÃºl Labrador of Idaho, who is trying to run as the conservative alternative. In remarks Wednesday at a candidate forum, Labrador urged his colleagues to oppose the status quo, but he is given little chance of denting McCarthy’s support.
The race drawing the most attention is for the No. 3 post of majority whip, which is responsible for counting votes, among other duties, a position now held by McCarthy. It pits Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana against Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois and Rep. Marlin Stuzman of Indiana. Scalise is considered a slight favorite because of the desire of Republicans to have a Southerner in the top tier of leadership. The winner of that contest will also be a contender for the top job after Boehner leaves.
But some of the strongest candidates might now come from the ranks of committee chairmen, who in recent years have seen their influence decline. Cantor was a much more devoted shaper of policy than McCarthy is, and Republicans believe that McCarthy will give chairmen more freedom, an approach that could strengthen his own future competition.
Although Hensarling, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, did not enter this leadership race, a chance for the top job might be irresistible, and he would be aided by the large Texas delegation. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a favorite of House Republicans, will next year head the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and could look more favorably on an elected House leadership role if he chooses not to run for president in 2016.
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, who formerly led the House conservative wing, is in line to be the chairman of the House Budget Committee next year, a post that Ryan has shown can be used to great effect to build power and prestige. Others could also step up to fill the vacuum left by Cantor.
Of course, a dramatic change in electoral fortune such as an unexpected loss of seats in November could reshape the landscape and cause Republicans to toss out their entire House leadership team. But that seems unlikely at the moment.
Instead, the choice Thursday of a new majority leader is really just the beginning of an extended race to succeed Boehner.