WASHINGTON — Rep. Eric Cantor’s decision to step down as House majority leader at the end of July following his primary defeat created a top leadership opening that sent GOP leaders scrambling Wednesday.
Cantor, R-Va., has been majority leader since 2011, making him the second-ranking member of the House of Representatives behind Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Cantor became the first majority leader in history to lose a primary after David Brat, a tea party-endorsed economics professor, defeated him Tuesday.
On Wednesday, several House Republicans began quietly politicking with one another, trying to secure support to replace Cantor as majority leader. Among those expected to vie for the position is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., currently majority whip, the third-highest position. McCarthy’s candidacy would create two openings in leadership, with multiple members expected to run for both posts.
As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s campaign arm, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, is the House’s fifth-highest ranking Republican.
Although Cantor’s departure creates at least one opening in leadership above Walden, he said Wednesday he has no intention of trying to move up.
“The position I hold is one that is critical to our Republican ability to maintain control of the House, and I can’t imagine reneging on that responsibility a few months before the election. I’ve got a job to do, and I intend to do it well and finish it,” Walden told The Bulletin.
Walden declined to say whom he would support in next week’s election to replace Cantor as House majority leader.
In addition to McCarthy, Reps. Jeb Hensarling and Pete Sessions, both R-Texas, are potential candidates for Cantor’s position. Sessions, who preceded Walden as NRCC chairman, could also be a candidate for whip.
Boehner reiterated during Wednesday’s meeting of the entire Republican conference that he intends to continue as speaker, Walden said.
Cantor’s loss is a stark reminder that members can’t ignore their districts, said Walden, who has served with Cantor since the Republican from Richmond first took office in 2001.
“You always have to remember in this job that you’re only as good as your next election, and that only works well if you do your job for the people who sent you to do it. Staying in touch locally matters a lot, and delivering for your district, and being there to be helpful is the first job you have in this business,” Walden said.
As majority leader, Cantor controlled time on the House floor, and scheduled which bills received votes when. In this regard, Cantor was a good friend to Oregon’s 2nd District, Walden said.
Cantor allowed votes on Walden’s Bowman Dam bill, which would revise the allotment of water in the Prineville Reservoir, twice in 500 days. This was necessary because the 112th Congress adjourned without the bill being taken up in the Senate, so it had to be voted on again during the 113th. He also allowed a vote on a sweeping forest management bill, which included a section specific to Oregon, just before the government shutdown in October, when floor time was in particular demand, Walden said.
Beyond that, Cantor campaigned tirelessly on behalf of other candidates, Walden said.
“(He) enjoys an incredible level of respect among Republicans for his intellectual ability, his tenacious energy level. He just never stops working for what he believes in,” Walden said. “I’m sure he’s campaigned in just about every member’s district at least once a year.”
Cantor is a skilled fundraiser, and his leadership political action committee, Every Republican Is Crucial PAC, gave more than $1.6 million to other Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics. By comparison, Boehner’s leadership PAC contributed $715,00 to others, while Walden’s New Pioneers PAC steered $175,000 to GOP candidates.
“We valued each other’s opinion, and respected each other’s work ethic, and it makes it hard when somebody loses,” Walden said of Cantor, calling him “a good friend and ally.”
Walden said it would be a mistake for Democrats to credit Cantor’s support of immigration reform with his defeat. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., co-authored legislation on immigration reform, and he handily beat six primary challengers Tuesday with 54.6 percent of the vote.
“(Cantor’s loss) reflects the intensity level of the conservative side of the electorate,” Walden said. “There is a high level of energy among grass-roots conservatives about wanting to do more as a check and balance on this administration and on too much government in Washington. Every once in a while, that energy takes it out on one of its own. I think that happened yesterday.”
Walden said he would call David Brat and congratulate him on his victory. Virginia’s 7th District remains strongly Republican, and now that the voters have selected their Republican nominee, Walden said he intends to help Brat get elected.
“I’m looking forward to serving with him,” he said.
Cantor threw his support behind McCarthy on Wednesday. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., Republican Conference chairwoman and fourth-ranking GOP member, told reporters she was not a candidate to replace Cantor.
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