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House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, reflects on the stunning primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., Thursday, June 12, 2014, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Cantor announced Wednesday that he will resign his leadership post at the end of next month, clearing the way for a potentially disruptive Republican shake-up just before midterm elections with control of Congress at stake. Boehner told reporters he's declining to take sides in the contest to replace Cantor as House majority leader. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
In GOP upheaval, a front-runner — and discontent
Politics » California Republican Kevin McCarthy quickly amassed support to become majority leader, but conservatives say they’ve been shut out.
First Published Jun 12 2014 05:48 pm • Last Updated Jun 12 2014 07:00 pm

Washington • California Republican Kevin McCarthy quickly amassed support to become House majority leader on Thursday, but his likely ascent shut conservatives out of the chamber’s top leadership jobs, leaving them fuming and exposing deep fissures within the GOP.

Within 48 hours of Rep. Eric Cantor’s lightning primary-election downfall, McCarthy and his deputies aggressively rounded up votes with a pitch to Southern Republicans and pointed private conversations on the House floor in a race that occasionally had the markings of a personality-driven contest for class president.

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Republicans sought to project an aura of unity but failed to quiet conservative complaints that such quick party elections after Cantor’s defeat gave them little time to rally around an alternative who better reflects the right’s ideology and the emboldened tea party. Votes are scheduled for next Thursday for majority leader, the No. 2 job behind Speaker John Boehner, and for majority whip, the No. 3 party post.

But that may well not be the end of it. Several Republicans asserted that next week’s action won’t quiet ambitious lawmakers or factions in the GOP caucus, and leadership contests after November’s national midterm elections could produce a brand new lineup.

Despite conservative discontent, Boehner’s job does not appear to be in serious jeopardy for now. But some lawmakers noted there was a limit to his security.

"The speaker is speaker in 24-hour increments. Literally 50 guys can call a revolt," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Boehner ally.

Cantor suffered a stunning defeat to little-known college professor Dave Brat in Tuesday’s Virginia Republican primary, a race that underscored the rift within the GOP between pragmatic, establishment conservatives and farther-right contenders pressing for no-compromise ideological stances. Brat cast Cantor’s past positive comments on possible immigration changes as amnesty for those here illegally — a characterization Cantor heatedly rejected — and turned it into a defining issue in the race.

Cantor is the first House majority leader to lose his seat by being defeated in a party primary election since the post was created in 1899, according to Eric Ostermeier, research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Cantor announced on Wednesday that he would step down as majority leader at the end of July. He endorsed McCarthy as his successor and the House whip moved swiftly to secure the votes.

"I don’t think anyone counts votes better around here, and I think he has a very, very commanding lead," said Rep. Cole.


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McCarthy, the four-term congressman from Bakersfield, California, will face Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, the chairman of the Rules Committee, in the contest for majority leader. Another Texan with stronger bona fides in the conservative ranks, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, passed on the race on Thursday, saying, "After prayerful reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right office at the right time for me and my family."

If conservatives were powerless to put the brakes on McCarthy’s quick rise they weren’t keeping quiet about their frustration.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, was among several lawmakers calling on GOP leaders to put off the election, suggesting it was rigged.

"Leadership’s tactic has always been call the election as fast as you can, don’t let anybody have time to organize except those who had the heads-up and the head start," King said.

Hensarling had been the conservatives’ choice, and King and others had no one else to get behind.

"I’m looking for a candidate that has not supported some form of amnesty, and Jeb fit that, and now we don’t have an announced candidate that fits that and I’m very troubled by that," King said. "Because if there’s any single issue that cost Eric Cantor his seat, it was amnesty."

The discontent seemed to irritate some of McCarthy’s supporters who mocked criticism that their candidate wasn’t conservative enough.

"When they say ‘More conservative this, more conservative that,’ it doesn’t mean anything to me. The more exotic members around here once again failed to have a candidate, they failed to show up. They don’t debate. So they don’t like any of the candidates," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who was lining up votes for McCarthy.

"They just come out here to you guys and complain, and they blog and they Facebook, but when it’s time to actually raise money and go recruit candidates and win elections so that you can stop Obama which is what they say they want to do, they don’t have the capability of doing it," Nunes said.

Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., said some conservatives are "never satisfied."

While the majority leader race narrowed, the contest to replace McCarthy as whip expanded with the addition of Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana.

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