On the Richter scale of political earthquakes, the June 10 one that knocked Republican Eric Cantor from his Virginia congressional district and from his leadership position in the US House might well be recorded as a 7: "causes damage to most buildings, some to partially or completely collapse.”
Metaphorically speaking, that building is the GOP leadership of the House. Since Mr. Cantor’s surprise primary defeat to Dave Brat – the anti-establishment candidate who is well liked by the tea party – the Republican-controlled House is now in search of a new majority leader. No matter who it is, he or she is likely to pull the House even further to the right, and perhaps presage a completely new leadership team come next year, replacing House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
“It’s fairly clear that a major part of the backlash against Cantor is that he had ‘gone Washington,’ ” says Norman Ornstein, a longtime political observer and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. In this case, he explains, “going Washington means voting to reopen the government [after the shutdown], voting to raise the debt ceiling.” It also means trying to rebrand the Republican Party as, for instance, more friendly to Hispanics by considering immigration reform.
The current GOP leadership is so scared by the upset of Cantor – who sometimes blocked Mr. Boehner’s more conciliatory efforts – that it will run from anything that looks like a deal with President Obama or even hints at big government, say Mr. Ornstein and other observers.
“One huge, dramatic loss like this will scare all of them,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. “It will make the surviving leaders think twice before compromising on an issue like immigration reform,” which some analysts and lawmakers believe contributed to Cantor's stunning loss.
Leadership races on Capitol Hill are a bit like running for student council. Grudges, friendships, and backscratching play a role. They could be considered inside baseball were it not for the fact that the winners affect the tone, style, and agenda of the House or Senate.
Take former Republican Tom DeLay of Texas, who was House majority leader from 2003 to 2005. His nickname, “the hammer,” says everything a person needs to understand about his style. He was known for raising buckets of money, favoring "wedge" issues, and looking askance at ethical lapses.
Or former Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republican from Georgia who ran for president in 2012. He led the "Republican revolution" of 1994 that ran and won on a conservative agenda called the Contract With America.
That’s what a tea party conservative such as Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas is hoping for – a forceful leader like Mr. Gingrich who has an agenda.
The existing leadership is “tone deaf” to what Americans want, Mr. Huelskamp said in an interview. House leaders say they’re against the Affordable Care Act, and then they fund it. They say they’re against amnesty for illegal immigrants, and then they support it for a certain subset of them. They say they’re going to cut the federal deficit, and they find new ways to spend.
“It’s going to take new team,” says Huelskamp, and it’s going to take a bold agenda of “big ideas,” not the incremental bills such as the one sponsored by Cantor, the so-called “Gabriella’s law” that increases funding for pediatric cancer research. The GOP needs to use the power it has – “the power of the purse,” he insists.
Others are not so convinced that the Cantor temblor will prove to be so earth-shattering for the GOP leadership.
Conservatives are “talking a bold game today, but the enthusiasm could wane over time,” says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Some of the tea party’s momentum will depend on forthcoming Senate primaries in Tennessee and Kansas, and a runoff in Mississippi, he says.
In the near term, House Republicans will be turned inward, looking to fill a leadership vacancy – or more than one, says Pitney. And as the November midterm election draws closer, members will look at things a little differently.
“I don’t see a [government] shutdown in the cards,” he says. For the rest of this year, “it’s unlikely this Congress is going to produce much.”