WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced Wednesday that he will serve out his term but step aside from his leadership post after a stunning defeat in his primary.
The Virginia Republican is throwing his support behind his ally, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is expected to seek the post in leadership elections scheduled for June 19.
"I will be stepping down as majority leader. It is with great humility that I do so, knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position," he told reporters following a closed door meeting with GOP lawmakers.
Cantor's endorsement of McCarthy could be a potent force in clearing the field. Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, said he would challenge McCarthy for the job. Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, has also been approached by conservatives to make a bid.
"I think he'd make an outstanding majority leader," Cantor said of McCarthy, "And I will be backing him with my full support."
Cantor's decision follows his historic defeat Tuesday in the Virginia Republican primary against a little-known opponent, Tea Party-inspired economics professor David Brat. Democrats are unlikely to seriously contest the race in his heavily Republican Richmond-area district.
Cantor's defeat cut short a career path that had him on track to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. He is the only Jewish Republican serving in Congress, and he is the only majority leader in congressional history to lose in a primary fight.
Reflecting on the Tea Party and establishment wings of the GOP, Cantor sought to minimize the intraparty differences and focus on Democrats. "Truly, what divides Republicans pales in comparison to what divides us as conservatives from the left and their Democratic Party," he said.
McCarthy's entry into the majority leader race would open up his whip post. His chief deputy, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., is likely to seek the job, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is also viewed as a potential candidate.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said he believed McCarthy has the support to become the next majority leader, but that he would like to see a "red state conservative" take over as whip in that scenario.
Stutzman praised Cantor's leadership but said he was likely defeated by voters who were frustrated that he focused too much on Washington. "I'm afraid he worked too hard for us and not making sure he was taking care of things back in his district," he said.
Cantor's loss has reignited the debate over the intra-party GOP war over its direction. While Cantor worked constantly to try and bridge the divide between the traditional establishment forces and the Tea Party grass-roots, his defeat invigorated Tea Party groups, and in particular conservative opposition to an overhaul of immigration laws.
"This victory is a referendum on the establishment that has gone along with policies that have completely left out the voice of the people," said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund. However, national Tea Party groups did not invest in Cantor's primary, suggesting his uprooting did not fit a neat narrative.
Tom Donahue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg TV that the Tea Party's role in the race was exaggerated. "The Tea Party had nothing to do with this," he said. "They didn't put any money in. They didn't have any people there. It was sort of an attractive professor in a very, very conservative district in Virginia. And everybody was surprised."
Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were stunned by Cantor's loss. "I thought he was an excellent leader," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "But you have to respect the vote of the people."
Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Fla., said Cantor's loss is a "huge tsunami" for House Republicans, and it will not be easy to fill the void. "He's been one of the guys with the big ideas," he said, "I think he's going to be gravely missed."
Cantor said he was unsure of his next move, but that he be "looking to see how I can best serve" the conservative movement.
"He's going to move ahead. He's going to do great things," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
Contributing: Catalina Camia