On Tuesday night, the Tea Party scored the biggest upset win over a sitting politician in at least a decade. However, that victory may have actually cost grassroots conservatives a chance to see their ideals reflected in congressional leadership.
Conservatives were emboldened by the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by his Tea Party-backed challenger Dave Brat Tuesday.
“This is just the beginning,” one House GOP aide told Business Insider on Wednesday.
In the span of just 48 hours, though, conservatives watched as the race to replace Cantor as leader largely fell out of their hands. By Thursday night, both of the candidates aligned with the more conservative side of the House Republican caucus — Texas Reps. Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling — had dropped out of the race.
That left Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) as the overwhelming favourite to become the next Cantor and take the House’s number two spot. And in a twist, McCarthy might be even more moderate than the man he’s replacing. For one thing, McCarthy supports a path to legal status for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, an issue that was perceived as a death knell for Cantor.
For another, McCarthy’s conservative group ratings place him to the left of Cantor. The American Conservative Union gave McCarthy a 72% rating, compared with Cantor’s 84%. The Club for Growth gave Cantor a 68% mark, compared with only 53% for McCarthy. And Heritage Action has McCarthy at just 42%, compared with 53% for Cantor.
One prominent conservative involved in majority-leader discussions told Business Insider there was “deep, deep disappointment” among the grassroots due to the lack of conservative House members willing to challenge McCarthy.
“A lot of enthusiasm that built up Tuesday night is gone,” they said.
House conservatives disgruntled with leadership got a late entry from Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) on Friday. However, Labrador isn’t as strong a candidate as Sessions or especially Hensarling. Furthermore, Labrador’s late arrival gave McCarthy a four-day head start. McCarthy is already expected to have locked up more than the 120 votes needed to win the spot.
And some of the staunchest House conservatives aren’t even thrilled with Labrador’s entry. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) blasted Labrador on Friday for being “pro-amnesty.” (Labrador was part of a “Gang of Eight” on immigration reform in the House, but backed out and has said he doesn’t think any immigration legislation should pass this year.)
The conservative who spoke to Business Insider also suggested Labrador’s entry is mostly symbolic.
“The thinking right now is that the conservatives want to put up conservatives for the positions, whether they win or not, just to plant a flag and not let the heirs apparent claim the conservative mantle for themselves,” the person said.
The most likely spot where a more conservative candidate could enter leadership is through the majority whip position, which is currently held by McCarthy. However, even in that race, there’s a growing sense the Tea Party-aligned wing could be shut out.
In a fight between Reps. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), Steve Scalise (R-LA), and Peter Roskam (R-IL), Stutzman and Scalise could split the conservative votes, leaving Roskam as the beneficiary.
“That,” another House GOP aide said, “is definitely a concern.”
Said another: “Everything old is new again.”
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