WASHINGTON — House Republicans will vote on their leadership Thursday, but the outcome will essentially keep them in a holding pattern, with the real contest months if not years away.
Though the reason for the election was the shocking primary loss by Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the immediate drama will end with his replacement as majority leader. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio will retain the top spot, and Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who currently holds the number three spot, is likely to ascend to Cantor’s position. Such an outcome would not represent any significant change in course for the party.
But the departure of Cantor, who had positioned himself as the inevitable successor to Boehner, significantly altered the dynamic of future House Republican leadership politics. Now the coming months will determine who can emerge as heir apparent to Boehner in the absence of Cantor and get established as the new voice and face of the House majority.
Will it be McCarthy, if he can demonstrate the leadership skills required to shepherd the sometimes unruly conservative majority, despite his roots in blue-state California? Will it be one of the committee chairmen, such as Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who passed on this leadership fight but will now wield increased power with Cantor gone? Or can some surprise candidate rise up and find a way to unite the House Republican factions?
“When Boehner steps down, it will be a free-for-all,” predicted one top House Republican official, who asked not to be identified.
The key factor is the status of Boehner.
Significant uncertainty had remained about whether he would run again for speaker, given his frustrations with his own members and some of their very public frustration with him.
Cantor’s unforeseen departure from leadership quickly put to rest any talk of Boehner’s retirement.
Members of his circle said they made clear to the speaker that he could no longer even consider stepping down, because it would leave the fractious House Republican conference without its top two leaders and an extremely short list of colleagues able to fill that void.
The day after Cantor’s loss, Boehner told his colleagues that he intended to run again for speaker, and the declaration was met by many with relief.