House Majority leader Eric Cantor is vacating his job as House Majority Leader after losing a primary on Tuesday. Ironically, the battle to replace him looks a lot like the election he just lost, featuring one very conservative candidate and one extremely conservative candidate.
Cantor, who enjoys a lifetime 95.07 rating on a scale of 100 from the American Conservative Union, was knocked out Tuesday in a challenge from the political right. Next week, the House will vote to see who should replace him as majority leader; with the announcement Thursday that Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) had pulled out of the race, the two main candidates are now the current Majority Whip, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Rules Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX).
McCarthy can hardly be termed a liberal, with a lifetime ACU rating of 90.43 – but Sessions, a strong Tea Party supporter, has compiled a lifetime rating of 96.12. This may seem like a trivial distinction to many, but within the most conservative elements of the party there is a clear difference. McCarthy is seen as a symbol of the party establishment – and Sessions a representative of the element interested in overthrowing that establishment.
McCarthy, seen as the front runner, is a relative newcomer to the House, having been first elected in 2007. However, he rose quickly through the leadership ranks, and assumed the whip job after Cantor was elevated to majority leader.
A former small business owner, the 49-year-old native Californian has been the chief vote counter and arm-twister for House Speaker John Boehner since Republicans took over the House in 2011. Before coming to Congress, he was the leader of the Republican Party in California’s State Assembly.
A behind-the-scenes player in Washington, McCarthy is not a fixture on the talk show circuit, or the deliverer of snappy partisan sound bites.
A decade older than McCarthy at 59, Sessions has been in the House since 1997. Currently the chair of the powerful but little-known Rules Committee, he was an executive with Southwestern Bell before he entered politics.
Unlike his opponent, Sessions is a partisan warrior who ran the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010, the year the GOP made historic gains and took control of the House.
Sessions has also known his share of scandal during his more than 15 years in Washington. He was tangentially connected to the Jack Abramoff scandal a decade ago, and was found to have accepted considerable donations from convicted fraudster Allen Stanford.
Another indicator that the race to become majority leader is shaping up to be a replay of Cantor’s primary is that the same conservative radio personalities, such as Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, have begun attacking McCarthy as being insufficiently conservative.
The nature of his job as Whip means that McCarthy has personal relationships with many if not all House Republicans. So the big question over the next few days will be whether Sessions and his Tea Party allies – both inside and outside Congress – can bring enough pressure to bear to generate the same kind of conservative backlash that felled Cantor.
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