Longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell called several reporters late Tuesday to boast about the tea party’s stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s Republican primary. When asked what he would do next, Bozell laughed and said he was going to have some more lasagna with the conservative operatives who happened to be dining at his house.
Across the Potomac River in his first-floor suite at the Capitol, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy started making calls, too — but not to the press. McCarthy (Calif.) instead began dialing fellow House Republicans, reassuring them that in spite of the shocking news, their caucus was not imploding. If they were worried about what happens next, he was happy to help.
Those precious first few hours of celebration — in Northern Virginia, on Fox News and across Capitol Hill — would come to haunt conservatives over the next two days, when their political machinery proved woefully unable to match their excitement. The only conservative who has jumped into the race for majority leader is Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho), a long-shot candidate who waited until Friday afternoon to announce a bid.
McCarthy’s apparent easy ascent as unrest swirled around him underscores how the tea party, even with its strong pull in congressional primaries and ability to dictate the Republican agenda, remains a limited force in the insular and relationship-driven sphere of House GOP politics. Though sizable in numbers, they lack the organization and preparation, the battle-tested aides and the Machiavellian instincts to take over.
That has left the tea party in the paradoxical position of being powerful enough to take out a majority leader in historic fashion but powerless to replace him. As a result, a blue-state Republican who is more moderate than the one he is likely to replace — McCarthy supports giving legal status to undocumented immigrants, for instance — was set to rise.
“Before Cantor resigned, McCarthy had 35 deputy whips he could call and say, ‘Hey guys, I’m running,’ and probably 32 of them said, ‘I’m for you.’ That got him started and gave him momentum,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
McCarthy quickly started to fill the vacuum of power Tuesday night, signaling to his allies that he was planning to run for majority leader once Cantor formally decided to step down.
McCarthy’s office — led by chief of staff Tim Berry, who served in the same role for former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) — methodically built its count with a numerical ranking system that DeLay had mastered. That gave McCarthy critical intelligence on who might need extra attention. And McCarthy’s top deputy whips weren’t his closest friends, but rather they were committee chairmen, a sign he understood how best to reach members — through their bosses.
Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing conservatives who led a poorly executed coup attempt against House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) in January 2013 spent Wednesday searching for a strategy, appearing distressed as they entered a meeting in the Capitol basement. Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) said he was hoping Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) would get in, but he was unsure about the state of play. Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) said the same, as did Labrador, who was wondering whether he should step up.
Things didn’t get any better by Thursday morning, when many conservatives gathered for a well-attended closed-door meeting of House Republicans from the South. When it became clear that Hensarling wouldn’t be whipping votes or announcing a bid, conservatives began to grumble that things were falling apart. Soon after the meeting started, McCarthy arrived to make a direct pitch to many of the members who might be skeptical of him and was received respectfully. Rep. Pete Sessions (Tex.), a dark horse then in the race for the post, arrived later, coming alone and struggling to find support.
In the early afternoon, other conservatives began to get word that Hensarling was out and Sessions was treading water. They had no playbook of what to do next. Jordan, Rep. Tom Price (Ga.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) — all popular House conservatives — had already made clear they weren’t interested. Labrador was still thinking it through.
On the House floor, Sessions took a short walk through the aisles but didn’t find much encouragement to run. He soon decided to drop his bid.
McCarthy also made his way around the floor. He was ebullient, patting backs and shaking hands as his green tie flopped over his dark jacket, with the knowing smile of a man in control. By that afternoon, he privately told his associates that he had secured enough votes to win.
On Twitter and elsewhere, conservative activists were in disbelief, wondering how McCarthy had so rapidly become the presumptive victor.
The people at Bozell’s dinner party — Mike Needham of Heritage Action for America and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots, among others — along with the combative titans of talk radio who helped raise the profile of Cantor opponent Dave Brat, had also failed to move swiftly to back a consensus hard-line candidate.
By Friday, conservatives were scrambling to salvage something before Thursday’s election for the No. 2 leadership post.
FreedomWorks, a group that organizes tea party activists, released a statement Friday morning urging Labrador to announce a run, although it was one of the few outfits agitating for an alternative to McCarthy.
“Americans deserve a choice in leadership, and Republicans should have learned by now that ‘the next guy in line’ isn’t entitled to the next rung on the ladder,” said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe. “Raúl Labrador is the perfect leadership choice for constitutional conservatives who are ready to shake things up in Congress. He has an authentic commitment to rejecting special interests and defending limited government.”
Labrador finally made his move early Friday afternoon, declaring in a statement that the Cantor defeat showed that “Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.”
But much of the attention has already turned to the race to replace McCarthy as whip, with three members — Reps. Steve Scalise (La.), Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Marlin A. Stutzman (Ind.) — competing for the third-ranking job.
Behind the scenes, Scalise, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and his boosters were making the argument that the right needed to get behind a Southern conservative and not let the House’s current establishment control all three senior positions.
Roskam, a dutiful member of the current leadership team as chief deputy whip, was finding some support, but he was also having trouble countering Scalise’s case with many members who are frustrated with how things have played out.
Not wanting to repeat the mistakes made by conservatives in the race for majority leader, Scalise canceled an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” “so that he can be 100 percent focused on his members,” said a source close to the congressman who was not authorized to speak publicly.
If Scalise ends up beating Roskam and the little-known Stutzman, it will be a notable, although lesser, win for the embattled right. Even Scalise has his critics — knocked by some conservatives as being too cozy with leadership and reluctant to be a bomb-thrower on the national scene.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele predicted that the conservative base outside Congress could soon revolt, potentially lashing out against McCarthy as the latest example of hubris by a leadership team that should have been more humbled by Cantor’s defeat: “The grass-roots conservatives aren’t going to sit back and let this moment pass them by. Whether that happens next week or in the next few months is the question.”
Regardless of how they react or how the whip race plays out, the lingering question for House conservatives will be why they weren’t ready for an opening they’ve been fighting for since they helped Republicans regain power in the tea party wave of 2010.