Eric Cantor to step down from House GOP leadership

Last Updated Jun 11, 2014 5:05 PM EDT

Reeling from a surprise primary defeat, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced Wednesday that he'll step down from his leadership post at the end of July.

"As of July 31, I will be stepping down as majority leader," Cantor told reporters at the U.S. Capitol while refusing to offer much political introspection on the day after his loss to David Brat, an economics professor supported by the tea party.

"I'm going to leave the political analysis to y'all," he said adding, "in the end the voters chose a different candidate."

While pundits were feverishly analyzing the stunning outcome, the scrambling among House Republicans for Cantor's leadership position began, hours before Cantor made his intentions known.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California already informed fellow Republicans he intended to run to succeed Cantor, officials said, and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas also signaled an interest.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was hoping to replace McCarthy in his current spot, officials said.

Cantor indicated he would back McCarthy, if and when McCarthy makes his intentions official.

The maneuvering took place as Brat celebrated his triumph over Cantor in an upset that shocked the party establishment and handed tea party forces their largest victory of the primary season.

The victory was by far the biggest of the 2014 campaign season for tea party forces, although last week they forced veteran Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran into a June 24 runoff and hope State Sen. Chris McDaniel will achieve victory then.

Cantor's defeat was the first primary setback for a senior leader in Congress in recent years. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota both lost their seats at the polls in the past two decades, but they fell to Republicans, not to challengers from within their own parties.

The outcome may well mark the end of Cantor's political career, although at 51 he has plenty of time to attempt a future comeback. Aides did not respond Tuesday night when asked if the majority leader would run a write-in campaign in the fall.

But the impact of Cantor's surprise loss on the fate of immigration legislation in the current Congress seemed clearer still. Conservatives will now be emboldened in their opposition to legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally, and party leaders who are more sympathetic to such legislation will likely be less willing to try.

Many Republicans say the party can ill afford to stick to an uncompromising stand on the issue, given the increasing political influence of Hispanic voters.

And a Democrat, Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, put it even more bluntly.

"For Republicans in the House, my sense is they are now squeezed between doing things the tea party way or doing things the American way," he said in an appearance Wednesday morning on MSNBC.

Appearing on the same network, Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said he was worried that the message from Cantor's stunning loss may be even more congressional gridlock. Asked if he thought immigration legislation was dead, King replied, "I'm concerned that Ted Cruz supporters, Rand Paul supporters, are going to use this as an excuse" to shut down the government.

"This is not conservatism to me," King said. "Shutting down the government is not being conservative."

Cantor had been tugged by two warring forces in his party and in recent weeks sought to emphasize his opposition to far-reaching immigration legislation as Brat's challenge gained force. Last month, a feisty crowd of Brat supporters booed Cantor in front of his family at a local party convention.

Still, neither he nor other House leaders betrayed any serious concern that his tenure was in danger, and his allies leaked a private poll in recent days that claimed he had a comfortable lead over Brat.

In the end, despite help from establishment groups, Cantor's repudiation was complete in an area that first sent him to Congress in 2000.

With votes counted in 99 percent of the precincts, 64,418 votes were cast, roughly a 37 percent increase over two years ago.

Despite that, Cantor polled fewer votes than he did in 2012 - 28,631 this time, compared with 37,369 then.

In the fall, Brat will face Democrat Jack Trammel, also a professor at Randolph-Macon, in the solidly Republican district.

Democrats seized on the upset as evidence that their fight for House control this fall is far from over.

"Eric Cantor has long been the face of House Republicans' extreme policies, debilitating dysfunction and manufactured crises. Tonight, is a major victory for the tea party as they yet again pull the Republican Party further to the radical right," said the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. "As far as the midterm elections are concerned, it's a whole new ballgame."

Cantor was appointed to his first leadership position in 2002, when he was named chief deputy whip of the party and became the highest-ranking Jewish Republican in Washington. It was a recognition of his fundraising skills as well as his conservative voting record at a time Republican leaders were eager to tap into Jewish donors for their campaigns. Since Boehner became speaker in 2009, Cantor has been seen as both a likely eventual successor and at times a potential rival.

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