Cantor loss touches off ‘Game of Thrones’ House GOP struggle

'I am a Republican and proud of that,' he tells staff and former aides

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers his concession speech as his wife, Diana, listens in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary tp tea party candidate Dave Brat. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., delivers his concession speech as his wife, Diana, listens in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary tp tea party candidate Dave Brat. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he will step down from his leadership post after his shocking primary loss, touching off what one conservative activist dubbed a GOP “Game of Thrones” struggle for the number two House job.

“While I intend to serve out my term as a member of Congress from the 7th District of Virginia, effective July 31, I will be stepping down as majority leader,” Cantor said at a press conference in the Capitol.

In the space of 24 hours, the Virginia Republican went from being a talked-about contender for speaker of the House to a political dead man walking. Lawmakers leaving a House Republicans-only meeting said elections to fill Cantor's slot would take place June 19.

Stunned officials in Washington picked over Cantor's campaign to understand his primary loss late Tuesday to a largely unknown tea party-backed economics professor, Dave Brat.

Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, who was dining with Republican House Speaker Boehner at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill when the Cantor news broke, did not mince words in his diagnosis.

“Here’s the two things: Either people ignore their district or they run a really bad campaign. In this case, it might have been both,” he told Yahoo News.

But Cantor disputed both notions, declaring that his team “worked incredibly, incredibly hard” and insisting that “never was there a day did I not put the constituents of the 7th District of Virginia first.”

In the end, “I just came up short, and the voters elected another candidate,” he said.

Cantor’s decision to step down as majority leader fired the starting gun in a feverish race to succeed him in the House’s number two job. That battle, to be waged largely in private telephone calls and furtive canvassing in the labyrinthine hallways of Capitol Hill, could prove to be another test of strength between tea party insurgents and the GOP establishment eager to bring them in line.

“This is the day of 10,000 phone calls. Everyone’s racing the clock,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist. “They’re in the Capitol Hill Game of Thrones scenario right now.”

Beyond the House majority leader’s broad institutional power — including the prerogative to set the House floor schedule, effectively determining the fate of legislation — the job will give whoever holds it a political megaphone and fundraising edge at a time when the 2016 presidential contest is well underway.

Those vying to fill Cantor’s slot included House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, House Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions, and Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a conservative favorite who formerly chaired the Republican Study Committee, a coalition of the most conservative House lawmakers.

“If my dear friend and colleague Kevin McCarthy does decide to run, I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader. And I will be backing him with my full support,” Cantor said.

Lawmakers moved quickly to secure support from some of the nation’s most prominent conservatives away from Capitol Hill after Cantor’s loss was made official Tuesday night. Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Heritage Action’s Michael Needham and Cleta Mitchell, a member of the American Conservative Union board, all spoke by phone to at least one of the aspiring lawmakers, sources with knowledge of the calls told Yahoo News.

“I’ve talked to bunches of people,” Norquist told Yahoo News, although he wouldn’t confirm specific names. His advice to those seeking to replace Cantor: “Talk to everybody. Be everybody’s friend. Make the case for what you would do in the next several months by doing it. You can highlight the stuff you’ve done so far. I think everyone should have a resume of the dollars raised and the stuff they’ve done for people.”

Cantor huddled early in the day with key aides and trusted former staffers behind closed doors and told them he would not try his luck with a write-in campaign.

"I am not going to do a write-in. I am a Republican and proud of that," a source quoted him as saying.

The source, who requested anonymity to describe the private get-together, said Cantor was “the most upbeat guy in the room.”

Cantor’s defeat counted as one of the most shocking upsets in congressional history. Brat, who recently spoke to Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai, had raised a little less than $300,000 compared to Cantor’s $5.4 million, but he thumped the majority leader 56% to 44%.

Cantor, a strident Obama critic who was widely rumored to covet House Speaker John Boehner’s job, addressed House Republicans in an emotional closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon. Worries about a potential House Republican civil war apparently led GOP leaders to set the election to fill Cantor's slot for next week rather than next month, a step that also likely helps McCarthy by cutting short the time his potential rivals have to organize and rally support.

McCarthy held court on the House floor Wednesday, receiving handfuls of lawmakers in a steady stream, as Republicans gathered for their first vote since Cantor’s loss. Cantor and McCarthy aides circulated on the GOP side of the chamber. The full range of political grieving and expression was on display, with Republican faces ranging from forlorn to restrained gleefulness. The conservative class ushered into Washington by Cantor and McCarthy in 2010 had claimed its biggest win yet — over one of the top politicians responsible for bringing them there.

Now conservatives are champing at the bit to install one of their own to replace Cantor.

Standing with arms crossed and talking to colleagues, McCarthy looked very much like a politician who realized that his luck, too, had changed overnight. Instead of gliding into the House majority leader position, the California Republican must now fend off serious challenges from conservatives who believe he, Cantor and Boehner have led the party astray by not being conservative enough.

Sessions, who led the party's campaign wing in 2010, told reporters Wednesday that he would run for majority leader.

“I am a conservative. I’ve always been a conservative. I’m a pro-business conservative,” Sessions said, speaking just off the House floor. “I think our conference does need to move to a more conservative perspective.”

Sessions touted his fundraising credentials, promising to be effective at traveling across the country to raise money for the party while maintaining a conservative focus. He also highlighted what he said would be a renewed focus border security issues — a not-so-veiled shot at Cantor, who was on the defensive in his district against Brat’s claim the leader supported “amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.

Sessions warned that the United States would “lose our country” and “who we are as a country” if the GOP leadership team did not attend to border security first.

Sessions said he had not talked to fellow Texan Hensarling, who was being actively courted by conservatives for a majority leader run, but he did outline his differences with McCarthy in broad strokes.

“I think my strength is I am a well-known conservative who will push — and want to have an agenda that I will go get the votes for — that is conservative, pro-business and solves problems,” Sessions said.

GOP leaders worried that the longer the party goes without a clear line of succession, the messier the intraparty dynamics will become, further widening the rift between conservatives and the GOP establishment.

Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who as a House member lost a bruising campaign to be GOP leader to Boehner in 2006, said the party must act swiftly to set a time to elect a new leader.

“Better to decide sooner rather than later, get that issue resolved and get about the work to solve problems,” he said.

Blunt also had nice words for Cantor, his one-time deputy on the House majority whip team who then became a key figure in the Missouri Republican’s 2008 ouster from leadership, but he acknowledged that a sea change is rolling over the party.

“As you look toward the next Congress, I don't think anybody who was projecting what might happen in the House over the next few years was projecting that without Eric Cantor being an important part of that calculation,” Blunt told Yahoo News.

Blunt added: “Congress is full of ambitious people, so you always have people looking for what's the next opportunity for them. … The next Congress certainly has the opportunity to elect their own leaders and it will be a different majority, a different Republican majority than this one is.”