WASHINGTON—Idaho conservative Rep. Raúl Labrador didn’t look positive when he stepped out of a June 17 meeting with Pennsylvania’s 13-member Republican delegation. His face betrayed fatigue—and some defeat. “I think everyone has an open mind right now,” Labrador said, trying to sound optimistic to reporters who immediately peppered him with questions about his long-shot bid to become the new House majority leader.
Two days later, it was clear most members didn’t have an open mind: House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy won an overwhelming victory to succeed outgoing Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who had suffered a stunning primary loss to political newcomer Dave Brat the previous week. To bolster party unity, Labrador asked for the vote to be recorded as unanimous—a typical move but one that’s notable since tea party Republicans often buck tradition.
With McCarthy vacating the party’s No. 3 position, Republicans also chose a new whip (the person who gathers support for legislation) in the secret-ballot election. Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, defeated Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam, the party’s deputy whip, and Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman on the first ballot, tilting Republican leadership more in the conservative direction.
To many Americans, the GOP vote featured mostly unfamiliar names in a boring battle of insider politics. But the results will have far-reaching implications: Majority party leadership negotiates with the opposing party, assigns committee memberships and chairmanships, and determines when or if a bill will come to the floor for a vote. Simply put, leaders set the agenda. That’s an important responsibility for a body holding a 12 percent approval rating and the purse strings for a nation more than $17 trillion in debt.
IRONICALLY, the conservative movement Cantor helped build is what swept him out of office. Cantor, 51, worked with McCarthy, 49, and Rep. Paul Ryan, 44, R-Wis., to establish in 2007 the Young Guns program, a GOP recruitment plan that helped Republicans take the House in 2010. Media reports largely blamed Cantor’s June defeat on his shifting immigration position, but his attempt to consolidate power played a bigger role. While Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.—both tea party targets—ran toward conservatives this year and scored convincing primary wins, Cantor tried to snuff conservatives out, launching an effort to take establishment control of local party chairmanships and the state’s nomination process. “This was Cantor’s Waterloo,” Virginia blogger Tom White prophetically wrote after the plan failed in March.
On the national level, Cantor’s loss laid bare divisions over issues, priorities, and power in the Republican Party. Within days, it revealed another chasm separating the establishment and conservative factions of the GOP: organization. Cantor’s defeat took everyone by surprise, but only one group was unprepared to replace him. In a span of 24 hours, Cantor had resigned from his leadership post—effective July 31—and endorsed McCarthy, a former deli owner from Bakersfield, Calif., as his replacement. Conservatives spent three days looking at each other. That allowed McCarthy—with the help of committee chairmen—to secure enough votes to win before Labrador even announced his candidacy.
But while many point to schisms within the Republican caucus, Rep. Gregg Harper, a rank-and-file member from Mississippi, told me those are largely overblown. He said Republicans have remained unified on the big issues, such as abortion, making leadership votes more about personalities, strategy, and prior relationships. For him, supporting McCarthy was an easy decision: “He always went out of his way to help me when I was new. He’s always fair, and he works as hard as anybody I’ve seen.”
Members cited McCarthy’s experience in leadership since 2011 as a key reason they wanted to make him the party’s No. 2 behind House Speaker John Boehner. McCarthy, who took office in 2007 and has close ties to Silicon Valley, insisted he will not continue business as usual, but few expect any major changes from Cantor’s best friend in Congress.
Scalise, whom the National Journal rates as the fourth-most conservative member of the House, touted his whip election as conservatives’ best chance to influence the direction of Republican leadership and bridge divides in the party. Scalise has led the 176-member Republican Study Committee for the last 18 months, pushing conservative policy on various fronts, including vocal support for the 20-week abortion ban Congress passed last year. Scalise has also led the effort to replace the Affordable Care Act with the American Health Care Reform Act, a Republican healthcare solution that has 130 co-sponsors.
“He’s going to do a terrific job,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told me. “It was important to have somebody from the South and somebody from the conservative side of the party.”
Many of the party’s most conservative members have complained they are often not heard in policy debates. They perceive Boehner and Cantor as caving to President Barack Obama on fiscal issues, including passing bills to fund the government and increase the nation’s spending limit without tying them to spending cuts. Boehner and Cantor only stoked the fires of dissent when they removed several outspoken members from key committee assignments after the last election.
McCarthy, addressing reporters for the first time as majority leader-elect, seemed very aware of his predecessor’s mistakes: “I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead with the wisdom to listen, and we’ll turn this country around.”
In mid-May, Virginia economics professor Dave Brat was scheduled to speak at two gatherings of influential conservative groups in Washington, D.C. The topic wasn’t economics but Brat’s long-shot bid to oust Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader since Republicans took control in 2011. In spite of the potential boon to his fledgling campaign, Brat failed to show up. He had to prepare for finals.
“I wish Dave could do this full time, but that’s not the reality of the situation,” 23-year-old campaign manager Zachary Werrell—a Ron Paul campaign veteran—told The Washington Post. “Professional politicians like Eric Cantor can campaign all the time; we’re lay people.”
That attitude usually spells election disaster, but it was Brat who had the last laugh, soundly beating Cantor by 11 points on June 10. After his historic win, Brat continued his independent ways: Apart from a rocky, morning-after interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Brat went into hibernation for a week and shunned national media requests—including from WORLD.
Brat wasn’t always so media shy: Conservative radio hosts were some of Brat’s most outspoken supporters, including Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and Sandy Rios with American Family Radio. Rios told me when Brat credited God and quoted Luke 18:27 (“Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God.’”) in his victory speech, he proved what his supporters knew: “That’s a man who has a depth of knowledge about what it means to serve God.” Brat, who graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, is a Catholic who also describes himself as a Calvinist.
According to students and colleagues, Brat is a likeable person whose faith and principles are very important to him. Cantor in ads tried to portray Brat as a “liberal college professor,” but libertarian would be a more apt description. In a June 19 press conference outside Richmond, Va., where reporters weren’t allowed to ask questions, Brat said his general election campaign will focus on his favorite topic: free markets. —J.C.D.