Eric Cantor is gone, and if they're not careful, John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy could be next.
The earth-shattering upset in Virginia's 7th District Tuesday night means that Cantor, the House majority leader who has long been considered the heir-apparent to Boehner as speaker, won't be back in the next Congress.
And his loss is a significant victory for a growing group of frustrated House Republicans who have been plotting to shake up the GOP leadership structure ahead of the 114th Congress. Those plans have centered on ejecting Boehner from the speakership and then hoping for a consensus candidate to emerge who could either challenge Cantor for the top job, or at least slide in behind him as majority leader.
But Tuesday night's shocker turns those plans upside down. Cantor's loss not only means there will be a vacant spot in leadership, it also invites more dramatic action from that clutch of conservatives who have grown increasingly disenchanted with a leadership team that they view as out of touch—demographically, ideologically, and strategically—with the membership of the House Republican Conference.
Those conservatives, suddenly smelling blood in the water, might now be emboldened to push for a wholesale change in leadership—ousting Boehner and McCarthy in this November's conference elections, and entering the next Congress with a new top three.
"It should frighten everyone in leadership," one conservative House Republican, who exchanged text messages on condition of anonymity, said shortly after Cantor's defeat was official. "They haven't been conservative enough. We've told them that for 3 years. They wouldn't listen."
The GOP lawmaker added: "Maybe they will listen now."
Indeed, if Cantor's defeat offers a silver lining for Boehner and McCarthy, it's that they now have a five-month audition to convince those conservative members that they won't be ignored any longer. Boehner's fate may already be sealed, as earlier this year National Journal reported that between 40 and 50 members have verbally committed to electing a new speaker. But McCarthy, who is perhaps the most personally popular member of the leadership team, may have an outside shot of retaining his job as majority whip. (He may not want it now that Cantor, his best friend in Congress, has been fired.)
Asked whether Cantor's defeat means he and his fellow conservatives will attempt to clean house and bring in an entirely new leadership team, the House Republican answered: "Not necessarily. The policies are what count. Not the people."
It's a nice sentiment, but Washington is driven by relationships, and the group of young conservatives whose energy has dictated the mood within the House GOP since 2010 is likely to determine who holds the key leadership posts in 2015. The most ubiquitous name is that of Jeb Hensarling, the Texan and Financial Services chairman who conservatives have spent the past several months trying to convince to challenge either Boehner or Cantor. Hensarling has denied interest in doing so, but Cantor's loss will only energize the recruitment efforts.
Another lawmaker worth watching is Representative Tom Price, who is set to succeed Representative Paul Ryan as chairman of the Budget Committee. Price's allies have long argued that the ambitious lawmaker will be satisfied with his chairmanship next year and won't throw away that opportunity to run for a leadership post; that thinking could change very quickly in the weeks ahead.
And, of course, there's Ryan himself, who has long denied interest in the speakership—likely to avoid conflict with his friend Cantor—but who now enjoys a wide-open path to the speaker's office.
Still, there's no question that policy is important, and, indeed, the policies coming from the majority leader's office have been increasingly problematic for some conservatives. Cantor has been emphatic in conversations with colleagues that he wants to pass serious immigration reform, especially something that helps young illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents— or, as Cantor calls them, "the kids." This image of Cantor as soft on immigration has hardened in recent months, prompting David Brat, his primary challenger, to attack the majority leader for supporting "amnesty."
If the immigration talk wasn't enough to rankle some of the conference's most conservative members, Cantor made more enemies by muscling a flood-insurance bill through the House earlier this year, over the objections of many Republicans, including Hensarling, whose Financial Services Committee has jurisdiction over the matter. (Some members saw Cantor's actions as deliberately intended to weaken Hensarling, who has emerged as the consensus choice of conservatives looking to vault one of their own into the uppermost echelons of leadership.)
Perhaps most egregiously, Cantor infuriated a sizable bloc of House Republicans in March by approving a maneuver that allowed a controversial Medicare-reimbursement bill to pass the House without a recorded roll-call vote. As members seethed over the alleged trickery, Cantor's office dismissed the visceral backlash, angering some members who were longtime supporters of the majority leader. Before that, the only rumblings of a leadership shakeup involved Boehner; soon after, however, members began suggesting that Cantor was no longer a shoo-in to succeed him as speaker.
"I'm getting used to being deceived by the Obama administration, but when my own leadership does it, it's just not acceptable," Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona said after the episode.
Another House Republican who is friendly with Cantor put it more bluntly: "If there's another vote like [that], Eric won't be speaker. Ever."
Still, Cantor hasn't exactly been a foil to tea-party Republicans in the House; to the contrary, some feel the majority leader is their strongest ally on the leadership team, and have endorsed his ascension to the speakership. Cantor has spent years carefully building relationships and delivering favors for members of his conference, knowing he would need their support if he were to become speaker.
But even the conservative members who like Cantor personally are celebrating tonight—not because he was their top target but because the majority leader embodies a leadership team they view as weak, reactive, risk-averse, and ideologically diluted.
After the House Republicans' first term in the majority was ruined by open internecine warfare, a dozen conservative malcontents tried—and failed—to oust Boehner at the dawn of this 113th Congress. The speaker responded by spending considerable time and energy last year restoring relations with the right wing of his conference, and as a result, 2013 was relatively harmonious for the House GOP. (Boehner even won a standing ovation when announcing the House GOP's surrender 16 days into the government shutdown.)
But the disillusionment was quickly rekindled in this second session. A large faction of House Republicans came into 2014 determined to produce a proactive agenda, and pleaded with leadership to address four areas in particular—health care, taxes, privacy, and welfare spending—so as to strike a sharp election-year contrast against Democrats. Boehner's team rejected that approach, opting instead to play it safe and avoid missteps that could cost Republicans a chance to win the Senate.
"There are no big ideas coming out of the conference. Our leadership expects to coast through this election by banking on everyone's hatred for Obamacare," one Republican lawmaker who has been organizing the anti-Boehner rebellion said earlier this year. "There's nothing big being done. We're reshuffling chairs on the Titanic."
The approach taken by Boehner and Cantor may yet help Senate Republicans take back the majority. Ironically, it also might have ensured that they won't be around to work across the Capitol with them.