Eric Cantor's stunning defeat in Tuesday's Virginia primary was followed Wednesday by his announcement that he will step down as House Majority Leader at the end of July. That sets up a competition for the number two GOP House leadership spot, which is expected to include Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.
McCarthy is currently the House Whip, the third ranking Republican in the House. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Cantor endorsed McCarthy — if he decides to run for the job.
The Majority Leader often leads floor debates instead of the Speaker, sets the calendar for when the House is in session, and decides which bills will come to the floor for a vote. The Leader also has enormous power shaping policy for the party in power.
McCarthy previously served as Minority Leader in the Sacramento statehouse. His management style is described as collegial and moderate — not the kind of leader who twists arms to get his way.
Even Democrats who served with him in both Sacramento and Washington have nice things to say about him. Congressman Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach says, in Sacramento, McCarthy was the kind of person you wanted to have at the table — bright, respected, and willing to negotiate.
But he adds the dynamic is quite different here in D.C. where it's much more like "herding cats." Lowenthal says, in Sacramento, the range of opinions within the Republican party was much narrower. On Capitol Hill, he says, "You go from the moderate to the far right," which makes leadership a "more difficult task."
That nice guy persona has worked against McCarthy as well. He's been criticized more than once for not cracking the whip, giving those on the far right of his party too much leeway, including allowing last fall's government shutdown.
It gets back to that management style. L.A. Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass, who served as majority whip in Sacramento when McCarthy was the GOP leader there, was dubbed "Mama Bear" by the press for her ability to both play nice and squash opposition by taking away plum committee jobs. Bass refers to McCarthy as a "member's member," which she describes as someone who spends time working the members of his caucus. "It's my understanding that he's paid a lot of attention to nurturing those relationships," she says.
McCarthy recruited a lot of those members to run for Congress. He — along with Cantor and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — created the Young Guns program in 2007, providing funding and support to House candidates. The organization takes credit for electing nearly 100 new GOP members over the past four years. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says that's the way you rise in leadership in legislative jobs. "You raise money and hand it out and help get people elected," says Walters, "and you cash those chips in when the time comes."
But McCarthy won't be the only one aiming for the leadership spot. Texas Congressman Pete Sessions also wants the job. He used to head the National Republican Congressional Committee, a major GOP' fundraising vehicle for candidates.
The campaign will be a short one. Even though Cantor isn't stepping down until the end of July, House Republicans will choose their new Majority Leader on June 19.
California could gain in leadership, but perhaps not in federal dollars. The House GOP has made federal cost-cutting a priority. One big California project could be in trouble: the bullet train. Walters says, if McCarthy prevails, there would be an "out-and-out foe" in the position to derail federal support for the project.
California House GOP candidates could also be losers with the defeat of Cantor. His political action committee — Every Republican is Crucial (ERIC PAC) — contributed tens of thousands of dollars to both incumbents and challengers up and down the state.