It's been nine days since Eric Cantor's primary defeat stunned the political world and set off not only a race to replace him in Republican leadership but a deeper examination of where the party is and where it's going.
With the party choosing new(ish) leaders in Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) as majority leader and Steve Scalise (La.) as majority whip Thursday afternoon, I asked a handful of Republican House members as well as GOP strategists paying close attention to the machinations within the party what had changed since Cantor's loss and what hadn't.
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, put it best when asked what to expect over the next five months: "There will be more conciliation at home and less conciliation in Washington."
Here are a few other thoughts.
* Members are on high alert back home. Cantor's loss was the equivalent of one of your kids waking you up from a deep slumber by banging a wooden spoon on a metal pot, according to any number of party insiders. "Every politician in every race has now redoubled their efforts," said Fred Davis, a California-based media consultant. "No competitor, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is being overlooked." When someone who a) is a member of Republican leadership b) outspends his opponent 40-1 and c) has no idea defeat is even a possibility loses, it sets the rest of the Congress into a semi-panic. And remember that more than half of the states -- 29 -- have primaries or runoffs still to come. "Most Republican members are more focused on their districts," said one House GOP member granted anonymity to speak candidly. "I think this is a good change and will result in fewer 'surprises' in November."
* Legislative risk-taking is dead. Not that it was ever terribly alive, but Cantor's defeat -- and the extent to which it was blamed on his stance (or lack thereof) on immigration -- ensured that no member will step even a foot out on a shaky policy branch. "The most significant impact is that both congressional parties will become more risk-averse," Bolger said. "And that means even fewer people willing to cast 'tough votes' that could burn them in a primary."
* John Boehner's calculus: Now, as we have written before, trying to figure out whether Boehner wants to stay on as speaker is, at best, guesswork. But, in the wake of Cantor's stunning loss and the elevation of McCarthy to the second-highest post in GOP leadership, there is a palpable sense that Boehner simply cannot stand down as speaker at the end of this Congress. Undergirding that belief is a sense that while McCarthy is a nice guy with a keen political mind, he is not ready -- or even close to ready -- to be the main face of House Republicans."Members know we cannot have a new leader, a new whip, a new deputy whip and then a new speaker in a matter of months," said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a Boehner ally. "Cantor's misfortune means there is no logical alternative to Boehner -- if there ever was one."
* The tea party wing isn't (really) spoken for. While some will point to Scalise's elevation to whip as a sign that conservatives now have a place in leadership, the Louisiana Republican is not the sort of true-blue populist that appeals to the tea party wing of the GOP. Couple that fact with the rise of McCarthy, who is about as non-tea party as you can get, and that means that the likes of Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who briefly ran for majority leader, and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan don't have a place in the upper echelons of the party structure. The question is whether the tea party wing will rally its forces for a major fight -- perhaps an attempt to oust Boehner as speaker? -- after the November election, or whether that part of the party is simply more bark than bite. "Depending on the make-up of the 114th Congress' Republican members, it is a very iffy proposition for Boehner still to retain the speakership based on his near fall in 2013," said one prominent Republican strategist well versed in the congressional side of the party.
* The GOP is still slated for gains. While Cantor's loss -- and the subsequent melee to replace him that ensued -- captivated official Washington, the dynamics of the 2014 election remain unchanged. (Sorry, Democrats.) The NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll released this week painted the picture: President Obama matching his lowest job approval number (41 percent), and a majority of the country (54 percent) believing he can't lead. Republicans remain more committed and enthusiastic about voting this fall. In the Senate, the seats being contested are, largely, in Republican-friendly states. Nothing that happened in the last nine days changed any of that.
* Immigration reform, still dead. One of the big early takeaways from Cantor's loss was how opposed the tea party base of the GOP is to any talk of reforming the immigration system. True enough. But the idea that Cantor's loss torpedoed immigration's chances in the House is misguided. "I think there is too much media focus on the immigration issue," said one House Republican member. "The House wasn't going to pass any comprehensive reform before last Tuesday and we still aren't."