How Conservatives Missed The Chance To Replace Cantor With One Of Their Own

That was fast.

In a commanding display of sheer political power, GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy locked up support over 48 hours to replace the vacancy at Majority Leader left by Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX) abruptly dropped out late Thursday, saying “the measures necessary to run a successful campaign would have created unnecessary and painful division within our party.”

Although Sessions made a spirited effort to run to McCarthy's right by seizing on the immigration issue, McCarthy's biggest risks came from more conservative lawmakers that didn't enter the race: namely House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX).

The episode has left conservatives on and off the Hill deeply frustrated that they had missed what is likely the best chance they'll ever get to remake the leadership team.

“Shame on all of us. Here's the conservative movement, and we were all asleep at the switch. We did not galvanize behind a guy, or a person, and we waited until the die was cast. If conservatives are going to do more than throwing mud in people's eyes, if we're going to actually win some battles, then we damn well better get on our game,” one conservative lawmaker said.

It's not that they didn't try. Cantor's abrupt downfall threw the House into chaos, prompting a flurry of meetings and intrigue. On the right, small groups of members held dozens of impromptu sessions to draw up a gameplan.

The problem was, as it has been for some time, they didn't have a candidate.

Hensarling – followed by former Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan – received what the conservative lawmaker described as a “full court press” as colleagues pleaded with him to run.

In conversations with allies, Hensarling cited his young children – he's known for being conscientious about setting aside time with the family – in declining to run.

But the decision has prompted some anger.

“Maybe he's waiting until the next time a sitting Majority Leader loses a primary election,” deadpanned a conservative strategist.

Jordan also cited unspecified personal reasons, sources said.

Brent Bozell, the chairman of ForAmerica, said he didn't want to criticize Hensarling or Jordan for their decisions, but he was nonetheless exasperated that out of dozens of conservatives, none was willing to step up to the plate.

“So many chest thumpers. Where are they now?” Bozell said. “There's a real question as to whether a member of congress has the right to complain to anybody about anything leadership does if they don't challenge them.”

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) is “getting a lot of encouragement to run,” according to a source familiar with his thinking. But a late entry by a relatively new lawmaker like Labrador is less a serious challenge and more “token opposition just to say we put up fight like at the Alamo,” the conservative lawmaker said.

An optimistic scenario, posited by some on the right, was that conservatives could build support for a candidate over the coming months and mount a serious challenge in November.

But that runs square against how power works in the Capitol. McCarthy will likely be able to consolidate power over that span, making him much more difficult to dislodge.

A silver lining of sorts for conservatives is that they see McCarthy as a likely improvement over Cantor and are planning to give him a fresh look at the beginning of his tenure.

“If McCarthy is the guy, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Bozell said. “It's a do-over.”

Generally speaking, McCarthy has been the most accessible member of leadership to outside groups over the past four years and has impressed conservatives on social issues.


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