WASHINGTON — Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, whose last day as House majority leader was Thursday, said Friday that he would resign his seat effective Aug. 18 in hopes that his successor will be able to participate in the lame-duck session after the November elections.
Cantor, 51, made the announcement in an op-ed article published on The Richmond Times-Dispatch website.
He lost the Republican primary in his Northern Virginia district in June to David Brat, a little-known and more conservative candidate with Tea Party backing. The results shocked Washington and led to a shake-up in the House leadership after Cantor said he would resign as the number two House Republican.
He said he hoped to prevent an intraparty fight from festering in the months before the midterm elections. But the news that he would give up his seat early was a surprise.
“It is vitally important that the constituents have a clear and strong voice during the consequential lame-duck session of Congress,” Cantor wrote. “The issues that will be considered during the lame-duck session this year will be crucial to the future of our country.’’
“These debates will continue into the new Congress, and the people of this district deserve to have their new voice representing them and engaging on their behalf,” he wrote.
Cantor, who has served in Congress for 14 years, said that he would ask Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, to call a special election for his seat on Nov. 4 — the same day as the general election — a move that would allow the winner to take Cantor’s seat immediately rather than wait for the next Congress to be seated in January.
The winner would also enjoy seniority over the other Representatives first elected that day.
McAuliffe told the newspaper that he was “heartsick” about Cantor’s loss because the state was losing a senior voice in Congress, but there was no indication whether he would honor the request for a special election.
Gregg Harper, Republican of Mississippi, said he was surprised by Cantor’s resignation.
“I had not heard any rumblings that he might leave early,” Harper said. “From a selfish standpoint, I hate to see him leave, but from a personal standpoint, I respect him.”
Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District is conservative, which would favor Brat’s chances in November, when he will face the Democratic nominee, Jack Trammell, and James Carr, a Libertarian. Both Brat and Trammell are professors at Randolph-Macon College.
Cantor gave no indication that he was considering an earlier-than-expected exit from Congress during an emotional address Thursday as he stepped down as majority leader. But in retrospect, that speech seemed more like a farewell address to colleagues.
In recalling his service in Congress, he said he would treasure memories of “walking into this building and onto this floor that excited me every day since I was first elected to Congress.’’
Ousted in Primary
His op-ed article had a harder political edge, hitting many of the major Republican issues — school choice, lower taxes, less regulation — and lamenting what he said was the United States’ diminished role in the world. But in neither the op-ed article nor his farewell speech did he mention President Obama by name.
“Our country faces many challenges,” he wrote. “Too many Americans have lost confidence in the country’s future, and it is not hard to see why. The American Dream often seems to be in retreat at home, while American power and principles are receding abroad.”
Cantor was replaced as majority leader by Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, after more conservative House members who were considered likely candidates for the job, like Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, decided to sit out the race.
In the end, Representative Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho mounted a token challenge from the right but won little support.
The promotion of McCarthy, who had been majority whip, kept the top two positions in more moderate hands. As a consolation, House Republicans elected a conservative colleague, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, to replace McCarthy as whip.
The new leadership seems to have shored up the position of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who many in Congress expected to face a challenge at some point from Cantor.
In his speech on the House floor on Thursday, Cantor tried to rebut accusations that the House had accomplished little this session. “We have found ways to agree on much more than was ever reported,” he said.
But he also defended the partisanship that has often been on display this year. The framers of the Constitution, he said, did not create Congress to be a “rubber stamp.”