Conservative Republicans ousted Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Congress, but they couldn’t prevent his establishment heir apparent from taking over his leadership position.
On Thursday, the House Republican conference voted to promote Kevin McCarthy of California, who had been the chamber's No. 3 Republican, to majority leader. McCarthy beat a conservative challenger, Raul Labrador of Idaho, whose bid had been viewed as largely symbolic. Labrador had entered the race only after several other prominent conservative lawmakers dropped out, so that McCarthy would not run unopposed.
The secret-ballot vote on Thursday was held behind closed doors; a rule implemented in 2008 prohibits the GOP vote counters from making the final tally public. McCarthy will serve as majority leader for only 10 legislative days before the midterm elections trigger another leadership vote for the new Congress.
“I want to thank my constituents and my colleagues for the trust that they have instilled in me,” McCarthy said in brief remarks after the election. “They’re looking for individuals that put people before politics. I’ll make one promise. I will work every single day to make sure that this conference has the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen.”
The right-wing faction of the party did secure a small victory against the establishment, however, by electing the current chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Steven Scalise of Louisiana, to the position of majority whip on one ballot. By doing so, Scalise proved to be an adept vote counter on his first test for a position that requires it, beating two opponents with a majority of the 233 available votes on his first try.
Given the truncated calendar and the persistence of the conservative wing of the House GOP, Thursday's election will likely serve only as a first hurdle for Scalise and McCarthy. Though McCarthy’s success showed the advantage of leadership incumbency — he knew many members personally and had the infrastructure to whip votes for his candidacy — there is a burgeoning confidence among some in the tea party faction that they might be able to make a more effective bid to unseat the whole leadership slate when given more than nine days to plan a takeover.
But, of course, even on that point there is division.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who openly pushed Labrador’s candidacy on social media, is one of the high-profile conservative members who believes his side of the party has lost its opportunity.
“The majority leader position is the position where we need to have a conservative and someone from the next generation of Republicans. We didn’t win that position, and so yes we didn’t achieve what we wanted to today,” he told a small group of reporters on Thursday. “I think many conservatives believe that [they can challenge again,] but I’ll repeat that I think today was our best shot to change things. It will be very difficult to change things in November.”
The results of Thursday’s vote seemed as anticlimactic as the scene outside the room where it took place felt chaotic.
The tableau outside the Ways and Means committee room, where members spent two hours listening to speeches and casting votes, was a multiring circus of the Beltway kind. Reporters, staff and Capitol police crammed into the tight marble-floored corridors of the Longworth House Office Building, waiting for more than an hour at a time for a House GOP staffer to announce election results. Members were swarmed by cameras and accosted by recorders any time they left the committee room to take a bathroom break during the lengthy conclave.
Before the vote, a group of a half-dozen Scalise staffers wearing Scalise stickers and holding clipboards with “Geaux Scalise” emblazoned on the back, checked off supporters as each arrived from a packet of photographs and names. And they weren’t clandestine about it either — they were effectively doing leadership race vote-counting while standing in the middle of a gaggle of reporters.
After each of the two races concluded, a Republican staffer arrived at the media stakeout position to announce the results — quite a feat of information control from a room of members who usually leak information to the press like a sieve. It was so loud in the main entryway of Longworth, where tourists were trying to squeeze around the stakeout position, that McCarthy staffers couldn’t even hear that their boss had won and had to learn so from their BlackBerries.
Cantor, who announced his resignation from leadership last week, will step down on July 31.
The transition between him and McCarthy should be smooth, but it likely will not quell the concerns of members who wanted to see an antiestablishment candidate such as Labrador win. Even Scalise has faced criticism that he will be co-opted by leadership, as members to the right have viewed his tenure at the RSC as less disruptive than that of his predecessor, Jim Jordan of Ohio.
Amash answered those concerns, too, but his response was telling.
“Steve Scalise is a conservative,” Amash said. “There are different perspectives from different members on whether any member is conservative enough.”
And that is the litmus test this leadership slate will face again after 10 legislative days, when the midterm election’s winners descend on Capitol Hill for the next edition of Congress’ version of the papal conclave.