WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will step down from his leadership post at the end of July, according to a senior House staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt Cantor's announcement.
Cantor's decision follows his historic defeat Tuesday in the Virginia Republican primary against a little-known opponent, Tea Party-inspired economics professor David Brat.
Cantor is the second highest-ranking member of GOP leadership and was on track to become the next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the only majority leader in congressional history to lose in a primary fight. His defeat scrambles the leadership lineup and the House's agenda ahead of the 2014 elections.
Late Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a short statement praising Cantor as "a good friend and a great leader."
"Few have fought harder or have accomplished more in the pursuit of solutions-based polices to better the lives of Americans than Eric Cantor," added Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "Every single member of this conference is indebted to Eric's graciousness and leadership."
Cantor's defeat set House leadership into a scramble, as his ability to set the legislative agenda, particularly in an election year, would be undermined by his lame-duck status.
Speculation was mounting Wednesday about which lawmakers could vie to fill the leadership void. Names mentioned included McCarthy, Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, R-Ill., House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, among others. Reuters reported Wednesday that Ryan said he would not be a candidate for the job, which has "just not been my interest."
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Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said he believed McCarthy has the support to become the next majority leader, but that he would like to see a "red state conservative" take over as whip in that scenario.
Stutzman praised Cantor's leadership but said he was likely defeated by voters who were frustrated that he focused too much on Washington. "I'm afraid he worked too hard for us and not making sure he was taking care of things back in his district," he said.
Cantor's loss has already reignited the debate over the intraparty GOP war going on over the direction of the party. While Cantor worked constantly to try and bridge the divide between the traditional establishment forces and the Tea Party grass-roots, his defeat invigorated Tea Party groups, and in particular conservative opposition to an overhaul of immigration laws.
"This victory is a referendum on the establishment that has gone along with policies that have completely left out the voice of the people," said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Tom Donahue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg TV that the Tea Party's role in the race was exaggerated. "The Tea Party had nothing to do with this," he said. "They didn't put any money in. They didn't have any people there. It was sort of an attractive professor in a very, very conservative district in Virginia. And everybody was surprised."
Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were stunned by Cantor's loss. "I thought he was an excellent leader," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "But you have to respect the vote of the people."