June 11, 2014 at 11:03 pm

GOP braces for shake-up after downfall of Cantor

Eric Cantor plans to step aside from his leadership post after his primary loss. 'I just came up short,' he said. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Conservative insurgents rallied Wednesday to capitalize on the downfall of their party’s House majority leader, whose loss to a tea party-backed challenger put the differences dividing Republicans back at the forefront of this year’s midterm elections.

“Did you see what happened in Virginia?” Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel said to uproarious cheers at a Republican women’s luncheon in his home county.

“The people always matter. It’s your government. … If you’ll take it again, just fight for it, you’ll win the day.”

Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he plans to step aside from his leadership post following his primary loss, as competing Republicans line up to seek his No. 2 position in a caucus vote set for June 19.

“All politics are local,” said Cantor, planning to step aside as majority leader on July 31 yet finish his term as a congressman from Virginia through the year’s end. “I just came up short and the voters elected another candidate.”

Among those expected to seek Cantor’s job is House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican and one of Cantor’s closest allies, one lawmaker said. Cantor endorsed him for the post.

The stunning Virginia victory of economics professor David Brat over Cantor probably isn’t a harbinger of a new tea party wave crashing over a primary season that, so far, has been mostly dominated by the Republican establishment. It came on the same day South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed six challengers in a race that, like Brat’s defeat of Cantor, included lots of talk about the nation’s immigration system.

“South Carolina was a referendum on whether or not you can be a conservative and solve a problem or at least try,” said Graham, a major player in the immigration debate.

But the takedown of the No. 2 in the House GOP leadership is undoubtedly a sign that Republicans are far from settling the struggle between those willing to negotiate in the corridors of power in Washington and those who define conservatism by how willing politicians are to stand in opposition to President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats.

The next test in that tug-of-war comes in Mississippi, where McDaniel hopes to unseat six-term Sen. Thad Cochran in a June 24 runoff. The 41-year-old state senator led the Cochran, 76, in the June 3 primary, but fell short of the majority needed to win outright.

“Our people here in Mississippi are awake, and they understand that the only way to change the direction of the country is to change the people who we send to Washington, D.C.,” McDaniel said Wednesday, pounding away on his principal argument that Cochran’s four decades in Congress make him part of a big-spending, debt-ridden government the nation can no longer afford.

It was a message that other tea party-backed candidates challenging incumbent Republicans, buoyed by the results in Virginia, made to voters Wednesday as they sought to capture some of Brat’s momentum for themselves.

In Colorado, three of the four Republican candidates for governor celebrated Cantor’s defeat in public statements or press releases. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Bentley Rayburn, challenging four-term GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn in a conservative Colorado Springs district, noted that Cantor had flown to the state last month to raise money for Lamborn. Rayburn didn’t mention immigration, but Lamborn nonetheless followed with his own statement emphasizing his views on dealing with immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

“I do not support amnesty of any kind, and I never have,” Lamborn said.

Louisiana Senate hopeful Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel, also used immigration to hit at Rep. Bill Cassidy, the GOP establishment’s favorite to compete this fall against Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu. A Maness statement called Cassidy a “Cantor clone on immigration and amnesty.”

In Tennessee, Joe Carr, a tea party-styled state representative, pointed to Brat’s victory and insisted his own bid to defeat incumbent GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander is viable.

Bloomberg News contributed.