A major earthquake hit the House of Representatives last week when House Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. lost his primary to Dave Bratt a Tea Party challenger. Rep. Cantor has decided to resign his leadership position at the end of July, so now the House will be holding an election to replace him. Right now Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, who is the current House Majority Whip, is the favorite to take his spot. Of course, nothing is that easy anymore in Congress as Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party candidate, late last week threw his hat into the ring for consideration. While it is unlikely that Rep. Labrador can defeat the establishment candidate, McCarthy, the vote is symbolic of the problems burdening the House Republicans in running the House of Representatives where a move cannot be made without creating division in the party between establishment and tea party legislators.
Probably what is most troubling about the Cantor defeat is that it was almost totally unexpected. Like many things, not knowing why the primary defeat of Rep. Cantor occurred is creating more concern than the actual event itself. Polls showed Cantor with a major lead over Bratt, and Cantor was viewed by many in the party as the successor to Boehner should he step down from his speaker post. Everybody in Washington is attempting to analyze whether the defeat was because Cantor had upset his constituents or whether the tea party is more powerful than it appeared. Making matters more unclear, the tea party had very few victories to point to in primaries where they had targeted establishment Republicans. One other exception is the Senate battle in Mississippi, where Senator Thad Cochran (R) is in a difficult fight with Chris McDaniel for the Republican nomination.
While determining why a well-respected establishment Republican lost is important to the party, the leaders of the party now must do what they were elected to do -- which is lead. While attention is quickly turning to the upcoming mid-term election, there still are some critical issues on the table in House that need to be addressed before Congress adjourns for the year, including appropriations measures and a funding source for the highway trust fund. Other issues such as extending expired tax breaks might not be “do or die,” but they are critical to many U.S. small businesses.
The loss by Rep. Cantor in the primary could move House Republicans in one of two directions. It could help coalesce the party, bringing together its central core to support solutions to issues that are pending for the 113th Congress; or alternatively, it could make leaders in the party more afraid to take positions that could anger its more conservative membership. Establishing a path forward after the Cantor primary is clearly going to take some courage. However, sometimes in the worst circumstances, an opportunity arises that might not have been there before. Everybody in Washington is watching to see what House leaders are going to do, take on the opposition or regroup. The results have implications not only in the present, but the long-term governing of the House.