Eric Cantor Says Goodbye After an Emotional GOP Meeting

The House majority leader announced Wednesday that he'll be stepping down from leadership, with a special election for his job slated for next week.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) arrives for a news conference after telling the Republican caucus that he will resign his post at the U.S. Capitol June 11, 2014 in Washington, DC.  (National Journal)

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced at a Wednesday afternoon press conference that he will be stepping down from leadership following his Tuesday primary loss.

"I may have had a — suffered a personal setback last night," Cantor said. "I couldn't be more optimistic about the future of this country."{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5023) }}

The press conference followed a special meeting with House Republicans where Cantor told the caucus of his decision. The mood of the meeting was grim, according to multiple lawmakers who left with solemn body language.

"It was real quiet in there. Nobody wanted to go to the microphones," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa.

"It was tough. It was not a meeting I thought we'd have," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, adding that he never expected Cantor to lose his primary.

"He's a beloved person," Chaffetz said. "He's a wonderful, wonderful human being and a great friend."

Several members described the meeting as emotional, with tributes from both House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.

There will be a special election next Thursday to decide on the new majority leader, with several candidates — including McCarthy — already starting to campaign. McCarthy told supporters earlier Wednesday that there could be two elections: one for majority leader next week and one for majority whip, if he wins and vacates the position.

Members said that there was no discussion of a potential successor in the meeting, aside from an announcement of the election date, and McCarthy did not mention his bid.

But at the press conference, Cantor made clear that, if McCarthy runs, he's his guy. "I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader. And I will be backing him with my full support."

There were multiple standing ovations throughout the closed afternoon meeting, and Speaker Boehner sounded like he was choking up, according to multiple members. Rep. Peter King of New York said Boehner spoke about everything the two had experienced together.

"The entire room could not have been more supportive for Eric Cantor," said Rep. Jeff Denham of California. "I've never seen our conference stand up and cheer and give that number of standing ovations as we did today." Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan even described the meeting as a "celebration" of Cantor.

"He's coming back somewhere, someway. He's a leader," Walberg said, adding: "The book is not yet written on Eric Cantor."

"It's like somebody said, 'I went in there to cheer Eric up, and he cheered me up.' I think he's handled it very well," House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon said. "Had to be such a total shock to everybody. But, you move on."

It obviously wasn't all sunny and smiles, though.

"My heart is broken," said Rep. Renee Ellmers, who had faced a primary challenge of her own in North Carolina based on her stance in favor of immigration reform. "I know how hard Eric Cantor works, I know what he has meant to our conference and how he had been so instrumental to bringing us into the majority."

Ellmers was a member of the 2010 tea-party class. "I've seen all the work and the payoff that's taken place. We're all feeling this pain right now."

But it won't be long now before the race for Cantor's job really heats up. Just when will that start?

"Maybe yesterday," Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee said with a laugh. "They don't have much time here to organize a campaign."

Because of that tight turnaround, McCarthy enters the contest to replace his friend with a significant advantage in terms of infrastructure and — of course — vote-counting experience. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has been mentioned on several conservative wish lists for leadership, said that he will not run for majority leader.

But even if McCarthy wins, there is talk among members of a strong challenger — perhaps Jeb Hensarling — passing on next week's contest and laying the groundwork for November's elections, when leadership positions will be decided for the next Congress.

The race for whip is likely to be competitive as well. In addition to Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois, one member who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for that job is Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri. Asked whether she planned to run for whip, Wagner declined comment.

Meanwhile, Cantor's primary opponent, Dave Brat, will advance to face Democrat Jack Trammell in the race for Cantor's seat.

Matt Berman and Emma Roller contributed to this article