WASHINGTON – Longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell called several reporters late Tuesday to boast about the tea party’s stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary. When asked what he would do next, Bozell laughed and said he was going to have some more lasagna with the conservative operatives who happened to be dining at his house.
Across the Potomac River in his first-floor suite at the Capitol, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy started making calls, too – but not to the press. McCarthy, of California, instead began dialing fellow House Republicans, reassuring them that in spite of the shocking news, their caucus was not imploding. If they were worried about what happens next, he was happy to help.
Those precious first few hours of celebration – in Northern Virginia, on Fox News and across Capitol Hill – would come to haunt conservatives over the next two days, when their political machinery proved woefully unable to match their excitement. The only conservative who jumped into the race for majority leader is Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho, a long-shot candidate who waited until Friday afternoon to announce a bid.
McCarthy’s apparent easy ascent as unrest swirled around him underscores how the tea party, even with its strong pull in congressional primaries and ability to dictate the Republican agenda, remains a limited force in the insular and relationship-driven sphere of House Republican politics. Though sizable in number, the tea party lacks the organization and preparation, the battle-tested aides and the Machiavellian instincts to take over.
That has left the tea party in the paradoxical position of being powerful enough to get voters to take out a majority leader in historic fashion but powerless to replace him. As a result, a blue-state Republican more moderate than the one he is likely to replace – McCarthy supports giving legal status to undocumented immigrants, for instance – was set to rise.
Before Cantor resigned, McCarthy had 35 deputy whips he could call and say, Hey guys, I’m running,’ and probably 32 of them said, I’m for you.’ That got him started and gave him momentum, said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
Filling a power void
McCarthy quickly started to fill the vacuum of power Tuesday night, signaling to his allies that he was planning to run for majority leader once Cantor formally decided to step down.
McCarthy’s office – led by chief of staff Tim Berry, who served in the same role for former House majority leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas – methodically built its count with a numerical ranking system that DeLay had mastered. That gave McCarthy critical intelligence on who might need extra attention. And McCarthy’s top deputy whips weren’t his closest friends, but rather they were committee chairmen, a sign he understood how best to reach members – through their bosses.
Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing GOP conservatives who led a poorly executed coup attempt against House Speaker John Boehner in January 2013 spent Wednesday searching for a strategy, appearing distressed as they entered a meeting in the Capitol basement.
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan said he was hoping Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas would get in, but he was unsure about the state of play. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said the same, as did Labrador, who was wondering whether he should step up if no one else did.
Things didn’t get any better by Thursday morning, when many conservatives gathered for a well-attended closed-door meeting of House Republicans from the South. When it became clear that Hensarling wouldn’t be whipping votes or announcing a bid, conservatives began to grumble that things were falling apart.
McCarthy, who arrived soon after the meeting, started to make a direct pitch to many of the members who might be skeptical of him and was received respectfully. Rep. Pete Sessions, who had announced a run for leader, arrived later, coming alone and struggling to find support.
In the early afternoon, other conservatives began to get word that Hensarling was out and Sessions was treading water. They had no playbook of what to do next. Jordan, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – all popular House conservatives – had already made clear they weren’t interested. Labrador was still thinking it through.
On the House floor, Sessions took a short walk through the aisles but didn’t find much encouragement to run. He soon decided to drop his bid.
McCarthy also made his way around the floor. He was ebullient, patting backs and shaking hands as his green tie flopped over his dark jacket, with the knowing smile of a man in control. By that afternoon, he privately told his associates that he had secured enough votes to win.
On Twitter and elsewhere, conservative activists were in disbelief, wondering how McCarthy had so rapidly become the presumptive victor.
The people at Bozell’s dinner party – Mike Needham of Heritage Action for America and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots, among others – along with the combative titans of talk radio who helped raise the profile of Cantor opponent Dave Brat, had also failed to move swiftly to back a consensus hard-line candidate.
By Friday, conservatives were scrambling to salvage something before Thursday’s election for majority leader.
FreedomWorks, a group that organizes tea party activists, released a statement Friday morning urging Labrador to announce a run, although it was one of the few outfits agitating for an alternative to McCarthy.
Americans deserve a choice in leadership, and Republicans should have learned by now that the next guy in line’ isn’t entitled to the next rung on the ladder, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said. Raúl Labrador is the perfect leadership choice for constitutional conservatives who are ready to shake things up in Congress. He has an authentic commitment to rejecting special interests and defending limited government.
Labrador finally made his move early Friday afternoon, declaring in a statement that the Cantor defeat showed that Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.
But much of the attention has already turned to the race to replace McCarthy as whip, with three members – Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, Peter Roskam of Illinois and Marlin Stutzman of Indiana – competing for the third-ranking job.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele predicted that the conservative base outside Congress could soon revolt, potentially lashing out against McCarthy as the latest example of hubris by a leadership team that should have been more humbled by Cantor’s defeat.
The grass-roots conservatives aren’t going to sit back and let this moment pass them by, Steele said.