WASHINGTON — A shocking primary election defeat for Eric Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, left his political party in chaos Wednesday as financial markets worried the shakeup might renew budget fights that in the past have caused government shutdowns and near credit defaults.
Cantor, who has served as House majority leader since 2011, unexpectedly lost in Tuesday’s vote to college economics professor David Brat, an activist in the tea party movement, which wants to reduce federal government spending and taxes and advocates for a smaller government.
The defeat put an end to Cantor’s quest for an eighth term, but he will serve out his current term through this year. It also brought an abrupt halt to Cantor’s career as a rising star who had his eye on the top job of speaker.
At a news conference after a closed-door meeting with his fellow Republicans, Cantor said he will step down from his leadership job on July 31.
Cantor said that he would back Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California as his replacement if he seeks it. Cantor and McCarthy were close allies and they often had to try to scale back the demands of the tea party.
Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, who chairs the House Rules Committee, told reporters he would run for majority leader. McCarthy and Sessions both have conservative voting records. Other Republicans also could vie for the job, with an election set for June 19.
Trying to heal intraparty rifts that have plagued House Republicans for the past three years, Cantor said, “The differences that we may have are slight and pale in comparison with the differences that we have with the left.”
Capitol Hill buzzed with speculation over whether the tea party victory in Cantor’s Richmond, Virginia-area district could bring Washington back to the showdowns of 2011, 2012 and 2013 over budget deficits and the size of government.
Financial market analysts feared a disruption from the relative political calm that had prevailed since a December 2013 budget deal.
“I just think it underscores the total political dysfunction” in U.S. politics, said Doug Kass, president of Seabreeze Partners Management in Palm Beach, Florida. Noting the need for fiscal and regulatory reform, he said, “This defeat suggests it may retard it.”
The turmoil, however, has given Democrats a breather from a string of politically damaging events that were preoccupying Washington less than five months before congressional elections.
As they try to keep control of the Senate in November’s elections, Democrats have been battered by a scandal over the administration’s failure to provide veterans with timely health care and President Barack Obama’s decision to swap five Taliban prisoners for an American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.
More than a dozen House Democrats, gathered at a news conference to promote a manufacturing bill, were all smiles as they reveled in the Republican Party’s turmoil.
“We have seen over the last three years a [Republican] party that is deeply divided and dysfunctional. I think last night was evidence of that,” said Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.
The election result was an ironic turn for Cantor, who vaulted into the No. 2 job in 2011 after he helped Republicans capture the chamber the previous November on a wave of tea party support. A number of factors, including low turnout of 65,000 voters, played a factor in Cantor’s defeat.
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is expected to remain in his position through this year and to seek re-election to the job next year if Republicans maintain their control of the chamber, as expected, in November elections.
But some conservative Republicans were speculating that whoever emerges as a Cantor replacement could also become a challenger to Boehner for the speakership next year.
Tea party discontent with Republican leadership was at a boil level and activists were itching to flex their muscles after the win in Cantor’s district.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a rebellious tea party activist who was kicked off two committees 18 months ago, said that conservatives “have been frustrated over and over again for the last 3½ years about a team, not just Cantor, that rode the tea party-conservative wave, [but] none of them with real conservative bona fides.”
Still unclear was whether Cantor’s defeat could even resonate in the 2016 presidential campaigns, as the Republican Party battles over whether to put forward a nominee with tea party leanings or someone more mainstream, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who could have the broader political appeal needed to win the White House.
In the primary campaign, Brat accused Cantor of being too willing to compromise with Democrats on immigration and budget issues and of not fighting hard enough against Obama’s signature health care law known as Obamacare.
That despite Cantor’s role in staging more than 40 votes in the House to repeal all or parts of Obamacare over the last few years.
One leading House Republican, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, told reporters he was not interested in a party leadership job. He is expected to take over the powerful House Ways and Means tax-writing panel next year and has been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential hopeful.