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House GOP’s second-in-command to step down after primary upset

June 11, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Today’s announcement by Eric Cantor that he would step down as majority leader at the end of July sent an election-year jolt through Washington. The move opens up a battle to replace the second-ranking Republican in the House, even as the party tries to determine how the campaign was caught so off-guard.

Cantor spoke with reporters after meeting with his Republican colleagues behind closed doors late this afternoon.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, Majority Leader: House Majority Leader: While I will not be on the ballot in November, I will be a champion for conservatives across the nation who are dedicated to preserving liberty and providing opportunity. Surely, what divides Republicans pales in comparison to what divides us as conservatives from the left and their Democratic Party.

GWEN IFILL: The Richmond lawmaker’s decision to give up his leadership post came less than 24 hours after he became the first House majority leader ever defeated in a primary.

REP. ERIC CANTOR: I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight. And it’s disappointing, sure.

GWEN IFILL: Cantor was ousted in convincing fashion by a virtual unknown, Randolph-Macon College Professor David Brat, who had never run for office before.

The loss was the biggest upset so far this primary season. As House Speaker John Boehner’s second in command, Cantor had long been seen as the leading candidate to succeed or overthrow him. Internal polls showed him well ahead in the campaign’s closing days. Cantor was confident enough of a coming victory that he spent part of Election Day in Washington, not in his home district.

DAVE BRAT, Republican House Candidate: This is the happiest moment, obviously, of my life. And I owe it to all of you in this room.

GWEN IFILL: Brat, who was outspent by Cantor 20-to-1, came out of nowhere, snubbed even by some national Tea Party organizations.

DAVE BRAT: The reason we won this campaign, if there’s just one reason, and that’s because dollars do not vote; you do.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GWEN IFILL: Brat will face Democrat and fellow Randolph-Macon College Professor Jack Trammell in November’s election. The party committee had only selected him Monday.

Although Cantor’s defeat was a huge Capitol Hill surprise, there have been others. Former House Speaker Thomas Foley and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, both Democrats, each went down to shocking defeat, but, in general, not primary races.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said the results should send a strong message to the GOP.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, Minority Leader: His opponent said he was too close to Wall Street, instead of Main Street. That’s what we have been saying all along about this party.

GWEN IFILL: Another Republican incumbent considered to be far more endangered, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, cruised easily to victory in a crowded field last night, defeating six challengers. He won with 57 percent of the vote.

But in the wake of Cantor’s precipitous fall, the Republican majority in the House tonight is in an uproar.

We get the latest now on the flurry of activity on Capitol Hill today from Ed O’Keefe. He covers Congress for The Washington Post.

Ed, almost 24 hours later, what’s the generally accepted understanding of what happened last night?

ED O’KEEFE, The Washington Post: Well, basically, he got thumped.

Dave Brat came from behind, only had raised only about $123,000, to take the Republican nomination in the Seventh Congressional District of Virginia. Bottom line, based on the reporting of my colleagues who cover Virginia, frankly, a lot more closely than I can from here, it turned into a few things, one, general Tea Party outrage at a top Republican leader, two, concerns that he was seriously considering moving the House into a broader debate about immigration with the Obama administration and with Senate Democrats, and, believe it or not, the fact that there are more Republicans now in his redrawn district that showed up and, for whatever reason, just didn’t want to renominate him.

GWEN IFILL: So there was a turnout question in the end, too?

ED O’KEEFE: No.

Well, it’s not that there were too few people that showed up. In fact, more than 20,000 additional voters compared to the last primary race showed up. The problem is, these weren’t Republican voters voting for Cantor. They were Tea Party-inspired folks or conservative voters who just felt that it was time to turn him out, that he hadn’t done enough for the district, that he was more cultivating his roughly 230 colleagues here on Capitol Hill in the House Republican Conference than in worrying about their concerns back home or about the general concerns of Republicans voters across the country.

GWEN IFILL: There was a lot of drama today involving the House Republican Congress — Conference. I will get to that in a moment.

I want to talk a little bit about the guy who actually won, David Brat. What does anybody know about him at this point?

ED O’KEEFE: Well, he’s an economist and a college professor who was inundated today, now that the national spotlight is upon him. He did some national television interviews this morning, got some questions on policy that he wasn’t expecting, was planning to hold a news conference with reporters around midday, and about 30 minutes after they announced it, he abruptly canceled it.

He has since said that he is going to take off a few days off to spend some time with his family and regroup. Notably tonight — and this is going to be concerning for Republicans — the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the group that elects Republicans to House seats, and Speaker Boehner said that they have tried reaching out to Brat, they have called, they have texted him.

They haven’t heard back. His voice-mail box is full.

GWEN IFILL: Boy, that’s interesting for somebody who is possible to be the next member of Congress.

ED O’KEEFE: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: I want to talk a little bit about that drama that unfolded.

Not long ago, we saw Eric Cantor come out after a meeting with members of his caucus and kind of straight up say, hey, I got beat and I wish everybody the best.

What is his mood? What is the mood up there?

ED O’KEEFE: I tell you, shocking, stupefied aren’t proper descriptions of what is going on up here.

I think people are just completely dumbfounded at this result. It was about this time last night as polls were about to close that people began to realize that this was a possibility. And within hours, others who would like to rise in the leadership ranks started texting their colleagues and saying, hey, if you’re thinking about backing a new majority leader, why do you consider me?

Pete Sessions of Texas, who is the chairman of the House Rules Committee, we know he was doing that late last night and early this morning. Sessions would like to challenge Kevin McCarthy, who is the whip, or the top vote counter, in the House Republican Conference.

You saw Cantor as he addressed reporters a little while ago say that he thinks that McCarthy would make an outstanding majority leader, so he essentially threw his support behind him, but McCarthy expected to face Sessions in what will be the only race up for grabs next Thursday, when Republicans vote.

And basically this means that for the next week or so, the 233 House Republicans essentially act like high schoolers in a student council race. You have got to go around asking your classmates, are you with me, are you against me? What can I do to get your vote?

And instead of talking about better lunch meals in the cafeteria or less homework, it will be things like, hey, would you like a senior position on a committee or would you like to be a deputy whip and help count the votes in the future or do you need extra money for your reelection campaign?

And it will be that kind of horse-trading. I know you remember it probably from the ’90s and earlier this century. This is the first leadership race we have really had up here in several years.

GWEN IFILL: Life is a lot like high school in the end.

Ed O’Keefe, stick with us for a moment.