The defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) last week was unparalleled in modern electoral history. Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), a man with almost no campaign, yet a powerful message, crushed the sitting majority leader while being outspent 42 to 1.
And even while the political carcass of Eric Cantor was still warm, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) – Cantor’s next-in-line as whip and a man who share’s the Virginian’s ideological profile – sewed up the nomination for Majority Leader.
McCarthy is generally regarded as a political animal: a shrewd operator without any particular loyalty to any of the ideological factions of the House GOP conference. On immigration, the issue that dominated the debate in the Brat-Cantor race, McCarthy shares Cantor’s support to grant amnesty to illegal aliens brought into the U.S. as minors if they enlist in the military, and is seen by the tech sector as a champion of increasing high-skill visas.
Yet, even with regards to politics, he was widely criticized for signing off on a redistricting plan for California that helped defeat six fellow Republicans. And he’s faced complaints about his whip operation during a tumultuous four years since the Tea Party wave of 2010 swept Republicans into control of the House.
House GOP leadership, anxious to return stability after Cantor’s shocking defeat, ordered the election for the vacant Majority Leader slot about as quickly as feasible. During the one week campaign, McCarthy was never forced to vouch for his position on immigration, especially in light of Cantor’s defeat. He never publicly forged a visionary plan for how he will deliver on the change in direction demanded by the party rank-and-file. He never explained how he plans to use the power of the purse manifest in the House to prevent a lawless president from fully shredding the Constitution in his last two years.
Indeed, no serious questions were asked of McCarthy. He was able to execute an insider’s game of raw political force with members who can vote on a secret ballot without having to stand before their constituents and vouch for their decision.
Adding insult to injury, the conference elected Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) as Whip to replace McCarthy. Scalise has a much more conservative voting record than McCarthy, but as Breitbart reported earlier this week, he single-handedly corrupted the Republican Study Committee and delivered it into the hands of leadership – the very antithesis of its original charter. With Boehner and McCarthy at the top of the leadership food chain, Scalise may actually pose the most danger to conservatives.
The episode reminds me of an incident with my four-year-old son the other day. He kept hitting his younger brother, so my wife and I told him he’d find himself in time out the next time he misbehaved. Without batting an eyelash, he smiled and hit the little one even harder.
The media will no doubt generate a narrative once again portending the death of the conservative insurgency. But much like the four-year-old who refuses to listen and doubles down on bad behavior, they will be made to listen – one way or another.
This tranche of leadership elections were always destined to fail because they were purposely arranged in rapid fashion. Moreover, any potential victory for conservatives would have been mitigated by the fact that Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) will still be the man at the top for the remainder of the year.
This is all to say that the real play for conservatives will be in November. At that point, there will be a number of new members entering the conference, many of whom pledged to oppose the current leadership slate. These new members will still harbor the fresh and potent demands of their constituents and will still be largely unvarnished from the insider’s game. Conservatives must work now to build support for an entirely new leadership slate – one that will actually listen to those who vested them with their power.
There is no guarantee that these obdurate career-politicians will listen even in November. But ultimately, much like a parent to a child, the voters will have the final say on the careers of these members. And as new members like Dave Brat take their seats in Congress later this year, these politicians will be reminded of their vulnerability.