The campaign to replace Eric Cantor as Majority Leader started years ago. Not because anyone predicted he’s lose this election or leave to run for something else, but because so many House Republicans thought Speaker John Boehner was not long for this world. And in Congress, these leadership races play out like high school popularity contests.
Leading a caucus with a big nihilist faction caused Boehner, who is a genuinely nice guy, to chain smoke like this and walk around the Capitol with an IV drip of Merlot. Boehner was either going to quit the job, lose the House, or be eaten alive by some Tea Party freshman who had pledged to go to Washington to kill everybody. Any of those outcomes would have caused Cantor to move on up to the speaker’s chair.
Since everyone was expecting Boehner to lose his spot, they were also planning for Cantor to leave his perch as majority leader. Cantor’s surprise loss to his Tea Party-backed challenger wasn’t something anyone expected, but it led to the outcome they all prepared for.
With the former heir to Boehner’s throne off to make millions being a lobbyist or running a super PAC, the race to replace Cantor was on. The candidates for Cantor’s primary job – waiting for Boehner to leave the number 3 post in government – have all been preparing for this race for a long time while carefully pretending not to.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California is technically the next in line in the Republican leadership. He is the Whip of the House, as in the sheep herder’s whip. Traditionally, it would have been McCarthy’s job to keep the other members in line. However, in the modern Congress, the whip’s most important role is setting and disseminating details of the schedule of the House. The job has become more important to individual members in an era when the House does less work than any time in American history and knowing when you actually have to be in DC for votes is what members spend 3/4 of their time talking to each other about.
McCarthy is a nice guy who is very close to Cantor and who has a pretty good rep with both old and new guard in the GOP caucus. He is also the Zeppo Marx of Cantor’s “Young Guns.” In other words, when Boehner and the other institutional Republicans got together to decide who would be the face of the corporate wing of the party, they rolled out Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, and that other guy. Well, that other guy looks set to be in line behind Boehner very soon.
These leadership campaigns usually turn on the obvious things, like geography. For example, there’s a reason California will have both the majority and minority leader soon, lots of members/voters come from there. Still, more often than not the leadership race can also come down to the high school stuff — what dinner clique a member is in or whether they play basketball or baseball can all play a role.
Some members are actually so averse to the leadership election process they use an excuse that makes candidates bonkers when asked who they’re voting for, “Oh, I wish you had spoken to me sooner, the other guy asked first.” (It should be noted that there is an even more infuriating type of member — the guy who loves the attention so much he stays in the undecided column forever so both sides fawn over him. This type of member doesn’t realise that at the end, even the person they voted for is tired of them.)
The race is mostly run at this point. With Rep. Jeb Hensarling dropping out today, the conservative wing go the GOP is set to back someone who has already gone further than anyone expected by getting nominated Rep. Pete Sessions. McCarthy is, by far, the favourite.
One more thing about this race is a lot like high school.
Most of us in high school were not scrambling around putting in hours building our college applications with extracurricular activities or jockeying for inside position in the prom king and queen selection process. However, some kids put all their energy into these ambitious pursuits. The same is true for members of Congress. Some choose to play “the inside game” and vie for committee chairmanships and leadership positions from the first days they arrive.
I remember first meeting Debbie Wasserman Schultz after she won her primary in her heavily Democratic district. Though she still technically had to win her first campaign, there she was in the cloakroom meeting her new colleagues and asking them how she could help. I think she spent her first race giving away more money to colleagues than I many of us spent on our own campaigns. And when I arrived at my hotel room on my first visit to Washington after I was elected in 1998 I found a letter welcoming me from my fellow freshman, the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones. In that letter she urged me to support her for a seat on the Steering and Policy Committee. I literally hadn’t put down my bag and she already had a campaign up and running. It worked. She asked me first, so she got my vote.
Whoever gets Cantor’s primo seat in the lunch room, it will be because they have made the right moves for a long time.
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