Reflections on a Political Sea Change

PHOTO: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivers a concession speech in Richmond, Va., June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary to tea party candidate Dave Brat.Steve Helber/AP Photo
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor delivers a concession speech in Richmond, Va., June 10, 2014. Cantor lost in the GOP primary to tea party candidate Dave Brat.

Last week’s primary loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is the sort of politically seismic event that serves as a “where were you” historical moment for an entire generation of legislators, consultants and journalists. While a number of theories have been offered as to what caused Cantor’s loss, from the Tea Party to population shifts, the end result is still the same: as of November 2014, Eric Cantor will no longer be a Member of Congress.

While early statements from Republican Leadership focused primarily on their friendship with the now-vanquished Majority Leader, by morning it was clear that years of pent-up ambitions were being let loose. By the time Cantor announced his July departure from the Majority Leader suite, several campaigns were already afoot, with Kevin McCarthy unleashing an operation that some senior Hill aides later described as “shock and awe”.

Yet the shake up on the Hill also represented a long-awaited opportunity for the Tea Party and far right groups. The conservative “movement” had soured on Cantor over what they counted as a series of transgressions, from failing to support last year’s government shutdown, to floating the possibility of taking on immigration reform. For months, several prominent groups had rallied against leadership as a whole, enlisting thousands in the grassroots in the effort, while convening to plot strategy and coordinate message against their targets in the “establishment”.

However, when pressed for viable alternatives, movement groups never offered a solution.

While McCarthy was locking up votes out of the gate, conservatives urged lawmakers like Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jeb Hensarling of Texas to jump into the race for Majority Leader. Jordan quickly demurred, though offering some support for Hensarling. Paul Ryan was also pushed to consider a spot.

However, what supporters of Hensarling and Ryan both failed to understand was the seriousness with which both view their current tasks. Both started their career under the mentorship of a DC heavyweight from another generation, with Ryan learning from former Congressman and HHS Secretary Jack Kemp, and Hensarling being tutored from former Texas Senator and Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm. Moreover, each man is in position to play a major role in the areas of policy they hold dear.

Ryan, long the GOP’s fiscal and budget guru, will likely oversee an effort at fundamental tax reform next year, as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. As Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Hensarling has already shaken up the status quo on both K Street and Wall Street, with his committed free market leanings endangering longtime sacred cows in Washington like the import/export bank (full disclosure, the author was previously a staffer for Hensarling).

With that in mind, it came as little surprise that each passed on a bigger job – Ryan almost out of the gate and Hensarling after meeting with supporters and weighing the option, “prayerfully”.

Left with little more than token representation in the Majority Leader race, in the form of Rep. Raul Labrador, conservatives began rallying around Congressman Steve Scalise for the job of Majority Whip. At the time of this article, the Louisiana Member appears to have a slight lead over Chicago area Representative Peter Roskam, who has been on leadership watch lists inside the beltway for years. However, regardless of how this week’s hastily assembled races turn out, there’s almost an asterisk over the results. No matter what happens, the House Majority will have to go through this entire process again after the elections in November.

While presumptive Majority Leader McCarthy benefitted from the ability to activate his Whip operation this time, it’s reasonable to view the next few months as a trial period of sorts; this Caucus has bucked the California Congressman more than once this Congress and they are likely to become difficult again if the leadership doesn’t place a high priority on the proper care and feeding of Members. However, McCarthy is almost universally liked in the House, with many Members carrying their voting card due to his recruitment and subsequent fundraising efforts over the last few years.

Yet the next few months also represents a crucial moment for Tea Party groups. After several months and millions of dollars spent on trying to overturn the party power structure, ardent conservatives had their moment of truth and were caught completely unprepared to spring the sort of well-run operation that could have produced a seat at the leadership table. With another opportunity coming up only a few months from now, they must be able to substantively affect the process, or risk fading into irrelevance.

Regardless, Eric Cantor emerges from the shakeup as one of the most intriguing figures in a long time. Still young, well connected and deeply respected by the party’s power brokers, Cantor is the sort of figure who could easily regroup and reemerge onto the national political scene.

He’ll likely be wooed by several influence firms offering a bank vault full of money, yet it’s intriguing to consider what sort of work he could do launching a policy think tank similar to Empower America or an earlier version of the Heritage Foundation. Given the relative inexperience of this Congress, and the vast policy problems that lie ahead, Cantor could make a generational mark by becoming the architect of a policy structure that finally moved the Party past Ronald Reagan and head-on into the demographic, social and economic problems facing the GOP and the country. One thing is certain – we’ve not seen his last turn on the stage.

Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill Aide and currently serves as a Republican public relations counselor at FleishmanHillard Public Affairs. On Twitter @joebrettell

Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.