GOP civil war explodes anew: Raging tension amid bitter fight to lead House

Cantor's fall gives Kevin McCarthy a shot at power. But the Tea Party has an opening -- and it's not passing it up

By Simon Maloy
June 13, 2014 3:45PM (UTC)
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(Associated Press)

The conventional wisdom swirling around D.C. is that next week, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will be elected House majority leader. Like any good Machiavellian, McCarthy reacted to the news of incumbent majority leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat on Tuesday by immediately moving to consolidate his own support within the Republican caucus and freeze out his potential rivals. One of those rivals, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, announced yesterday that he would not be seeking the position. That left the lone figure of Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, to stand in McCarthy’s way, but he also stood down late Thursday night.

For an average person, none of this really matters. But for conservative activists, it really matters. They succeeded in taking out Cantor, striking a blow at the leadership they felt was abandoning their conservative principles. And after scoring that huge victory, the establishment is throwing it right back in their faces.


McCarthy, the current majority whip, is no more loved by the hard right than Cantor is. As a member of the leadership, he voted for many of the same pieces of legislation that got Cantor in trouble with the conservative base. He’s a stronger advocate for immigration reform than Cantor ever was. He’s shown a willingness to work to “fix” the Affordable Care Act rather than just agitate for its full repeal. That’s more than enough to earn himself the RINO stamp, and the right is not happy at his likely ascendance.

Erick Erickson reacted by calling the GOP “the stupid party” and attacked House Republicans for elevating McCarthy, who is “not a friend of conservatives.” Erickson laid out an indictment of McCarthy that was so thorough that it attacked McCarthy for raising the debt ceiling twice in three sentences.

McCarthy voted for the FARM Act, which made no meaningful reforms to farm policy. He has repeatedly voted to raise the debt ceiling. He voted for the Ryan-Murray tax increase plan. He voted to hand Barack Obama a blank check to raise the debt ceiling.

He is just another in a long line of big spenders who thinks the Democrats in charge of government are the problem, not government itself.

Far-right legislators are also despondent at McCarthy’s coronation. They were really banking on Hensarling rising up as their standard-bearer. Rep. Justin Amash, a Tea Party darling from Michigan, tweeted on Wednesday: “Tonight I will pray that @RepHensarling runs for majority leader. I respect him & trust him. Our country needs him.” Shortly afterward, when it became clear that McCarthy was pulling together the support he needed, Amash tried to work a little secret-ballot unskewing:


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Now that Hensarling is out, there’s a movement brewing to enlist Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio to the cause. This desperation for an alternative for McCarthy stems from the fact that Sessions is also considered suspect by the faithful. Sessions, who is plenty conservative, was challenged by the Tea Party in his primary earlier this year for no real reason other than it seemed like they could.

Cantor’s downfall was significant in that it brought a sense of immediacy to the civil war between the Tea Party and the establishment. Primary fights were and are dramatic, but their impact was always going to be felt much further on down the road, after the November elections, when the new Congress convenes in 2015. With Cantor defeated and his leadership position vacant, there was a sudden and unexpected opportunity for the Tea Party to assert its influence now. And the establishment moved quickly to make sure that didn’t happen.


So now instead of trying to cobble together a temporary alliance between insurgent candidates and established incumbents aimed at taking down the Democrats, the two camps are at each other’s throats less than five months before Election Day. Republicans in disarray!

From a pragmatic standpoint, McCarthy sliding into Cantor’s spot with a minimum of fuss makes the most sense, arguably for both the establishment and the Tea Party. The establishment obviously would want to promote one of their own, but McCarthy will have to face another leadership election next January. The Tea Party caucus could use that time to organize and get its candidates and strategy set. But the drama of Cantor’s downfall has left them feeling like they’re owed something. “Less than twenty-four hours after the shockwaves of Eric Cantor’s defeat, the House Republican Party has decided to ignore the results as a meaningless anomaly,” Erickson wrote.


The irony, of course, is that McCarthy, Sessions and Hensarling are all very conservative lawmakers by any objective reading, and Cantor’s defeat will likely mean that whoever occupies the majority leader’s position will yank the party even further to the right than it already is. Erickson and his ilk have already won, but they refuse to realize it.

Simon Maloy

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