WASHINGTON — Republicans in the US House of Representatives announced Wednesday afternoon that elections would be held on June 19th to select a replacement for Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who was defeated at the hands of a little-known Tea Party movement-supported opponent late Tuesday night. While the Republican leadership, already under pressure from its own right-wing, attempted to assess the situation after the surprise defeat, internal campaigning already began for a reshuffling of the top positions in the House.
Cantor announced Wednesday afternoon that he would step down from his position in the House leadership, effective at the end of July. Although Cantor is expected to finish his term in office as representative of Virginia’s 7th District in January, his influence is likely to decline drastically as a lame-duck.
“Growing up in the Jewish faith, I went to Hebrew School and learned about the Old Testament, and you learn that there are setbacks, but you need to have optimism for the future,” Cantor said during an afternoon press conference. “And I am optimistic for this country’s future.”
Some Jewish and pro-Israel groups described Cantor’s defeat as a major blow. Nathan Diament, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America’s Executive Director for Public Policy described Cantor as “a critical partner for the advocacy work of the Orthodox Jewish community on issues ranging from Israel’s security and the security of Jewish institutions in the United States, to religious liberty to educational reform, and opportunity to defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.”
While Cantor’s departure means that there will be no Jewish Republicans in Congress, a number of those jockeying for a place among the House leadership have strong records on Israel-related topics.
One likely candidate for Cantor’s position is the third-ranking Republican in the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). McCarthy has issued a number of statements supporting Israel in recent years, and participated, alongside 80 other members of Congress in an AIPAC-sponsored trip to Israel in 2011. Cantor himself said during his press conference that if McCarthy were to run, he would throw his support behind the California representative.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) began campaigning for the position on Tuesday night, sending out a mass text message shortly after Cantor’s loss was announced. A member of the House Republican Israel Caucus, Sessions addressed a Dallas meeting of AIPAC members in early May. According to a voting record matrix on Govtracker.com, Sessions is significantly to the right of McCarthy in a general voting analysis.
The dark horse candidate for the position is fellow Texan Jeb Hensarling, the most conservative of the three candidates, and the closest ideologically to the Tea Party voters who ousted Cantor from his district.
Hensarling has previously gestured toward even challenging Speaker of the House John Boehner, and part of Wednesday’s scramble within GOP leadership to quickly replace Cantor was likely to try and avoid momentum building toward a general challenge to all of the more moderate House leadership.
All three likely candidates are members of the House Republican Israel Caucus.
A source at a pro-Israel organization said that all three candidates for the position have strong pro-Israel records. According to the source, the pro-Israel consensus among all three reflects the broad pro-Israel support in the House in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses.
The source noted that since Rep. Jack Kemp left the House in 1989, pro-Israel leaders are replaced by pro-Israel leaders.
If McCarthy does, in fact, emerge as the best candidate for Cantor’s spot, it would also require replacing the third-ranking majority position in the House, the majority whip. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), currently the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, is likely to campaign for that spot.
Roskam’s presence in leadership would help to fill the legislative shoes left by Cantor. Roskam, a moderate Republican, is an extremely vocal and industrious legislator on Israel-related issues. In the past year, he introduced two bills on the subject – one that would block federal funding for universities which boycott Israel, and a second to increase US funding and partnership with Israel for missile defense programs.