Rep. Eric Cantor, the just-departed House majority leader, announced Friday morning that he would also resign altogether from Congress, effective Aug. 18.
The seven-term congressman, stunned by a June 10 upset in Virginia’s primary, stepped down from his Republican leadership position Thursday.
“It has been the highest honor of my professional life to serve the people of Virginia’s 7th District in Congress,” Cantor said in a statement Friday morning. “That is why it is with tremendous gratitude and a heavy heart that I have decided to resign from Congress, effective Aug. 18.”
In his statement, Cantor says his resignation would allow his successor, likely to be Republican nominee David Brat, to get an edge in seniority by taking office in November rather than January.
The surprise decision caps off a nearly 14-year career in Congress for the hard-charging 51-year-old Virginian, whose name became synonymous with ambition as he soared through leadership ranks at a relatively young age and charted the course for a new generation of Republicans in the Capitol.
Some congressional leaders have made similar decisions to retire altogether after brief stints returning to rank-and-file status, but Cantor’s move remains unique because he’s the highest-ranking House member to ever lose his own party’s nomination.
Rather than stay in the House through the end of December, he said he would pave the way for his successor — presumably Brat in the Republican-tilting district surrounding Richmond — to be an active participant in the expected lame-duck session after the November elections. “That way he will also have seniority, and that will help the interests of my constituents [because] he can be there in that consequential lame-duck session,” Cantor told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which first reported his plans to leave Congress early.
Cantor has asked Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to schedule two elections Nov. 4, one that will fill out the remaining weeks of his existing House term and the other for the next full two-year term. The decision will leave Virginia’s 7th Congressional District without a representative for two-and-a-half months, but most of that time the House will be adjourned to allow lawmakers to campaign before November.
The move also allows Cantor, a lawyer with strong ties to Wall Street and the financial community, to begin his private-sector life several months earlier than if he had served out his term.
Cantor’s sudden departure, after so many years at the center of fiscal drama in showdowns with President Obama, is somewhat dizzying.
Unaware of the revolt brewing among his district’s conservative voters, Cantor left the Capitol the afternoon of June 10 for the 100-mile drive to Richmond expecting a coronation in his primary race against Brat, a conservative professor at Randolph-Macon College. Brat had run a shoe-string campaign and seemed unaware that he was on the verge of one the great upsets of modern politics.
Instead he routed Cantor by more than 10 percentage points, even as outside conservative groups that have elevated long-shot bids against other Republican incumbents doubted Brat’s credentials.
Easily poised to succeed House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), his sometime internal rival, Cantor announced the next day that he would resign as majority leader effective July 31, keeping to himself his plans to quit Congress outright in mid-August before his seventh term expired.
The final coda for Cantor’s public service came in an unusually bipartisan moment Thursday just before noon, when he delivered a farewell address. He received long standing ovations from friend and foe, including Democrats who often decried his partisanship and Republicans who distrusted his ambition.
As Cantor addressed the House chamber Thursday in his last act as majority leader, the always emotional Boehner dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
Cantor told the House that his friend was an “example of firm leadership” who was unafraid to show his “kind heart and soft spot from time to time.” Cantor mentioned Boehner’s “patience” during their regular meetings, which he said took place at least once a day, every day the House had been in session the past five years.
The one-time rivals have led in lock step in recent years as they struggled to wrangle an unruly bloc of conservatives into line with the rest of the Republican caucus. Cantor’s last official day was emblematic of much of his tenure, with the leadership team battling another tea party-fueled rebellion, this one against immigration legislation backed by Boehner (R-Ohio).
Boehner has been magnanimous to his partner in those battles as Cantor has bowed out from the GOP leadership. This week, Boehner paid his own tribute at a meeting of the National Leadership Assembly for Israel. Before discussing the urgent matter of the day — the situation in Gaza — the speaker thanked the only Jewish Republican now in Congress.
A three-minute video was released that charts Cantor’s ascension to House majority leader and the highlights of his leadership — including the passage of the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which diverted $126 million in federal funds to fight childhood cancer and other pediatric diseases. Cantor has said the bill is a highlight of his tenure.
In the House, Cantor told the assembled members that it had been “an honor and a privilege” to serve as majority leader and thanked his colleagues for “their service, their friendship and their warmth.” He also warned that “our nation and our economy cannot meet its full potential if we in America are not leading abroad,” citing the ongoing crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. “We’ve got to make leadership abroad a priority.”
Cantor was given a standing ovation for several minutes from across the House chamber and received hugs from two of his closest allies — the incoming majority leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
Thursday marked the unexpected end of a star’s rise. It was assumed that Cantor would play a key role in the GOP’s leadership for some years to come. He sat in the House for two years before rising to chief deputy whip, later taking the role of minority whip and then, in 2011, majority leader.
Although he was not mentioned as a future presidential candidate, no one expected his fall to come so soon. Cantor was knocked off his perch despite outspending Brat 40 to 1.
Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore has known Cantor most of his life and witnessed the evening he lost the primary for Virginia’s 7th District. Gilmore describes a “sense of frustration” among voters and believes that Cantor’s reelection loss had more to do with anger toward the GOP’s leadership than toward the congressman himself.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t like the direction of the country, and Eric was a symbol for the state of the affairs,” Gilmore said. “Maybe if he had talked up his accomplishments in the leadership and the 7th District more, he might not have lost.”
What’s next for the still relatively young Cantor? “I do want to play a role in the public debate,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”
Even his political opponents think he isn’t quite finished. During his tribute in the House, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said, “I know that he will not be leaving the public community, the public square, that his voice will still be a voice of influence and he will make a difference in whatever area he pursues.”
The GOP leaders have similar thoughts. At the end of the House Republican’s video tribute, which had 3,500 views on YouTube by late Thursday afternoon, Cantor’s voice concludes that “each setback is an opportunity, and there’s always optimism for the future.”