By Russell Berman - 06/19/14 03:16 PM EDT
House Republicans reshaped their leadership team Thursday, promoting Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) to majority leader, following the surprise primary defeat of Rep. Eric CantorEric CantorThe Trail 2016: On the fringe Cantor 'pleased' Trump is embracing Jeb Bush's immigration plan Trump’s Breitbart hire sends tremors through Capitol Hill MORE (Va.).
The party picked conservative Rep. Steve Scalise (La.) to replace McCarthy as majority whip and complete the shakeup resulting from Cantor’s defeat.
Less than an hour later, Scalise defeated two other candidates, Reps. Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Marlin Stutzman (Ind.), on the first ballot to become chief vote-counter despite rampant speculation it might take two ballots to decide the contest.
Republican aides announced the winners of the elections but not the vote tallies, which are kept secret.
The victory will make McCarthy, an easy-going former deli owner, the potential heir apparent to Boehner, marking a rapid rise for a Republican first elected to the House in 2006.
At a press conference after the votes, McCarthy said he would make one promise: “I will work every single day to make sure this conference has the courage to lead and the wisdom to listen. And we’ll turn this country around.”
Labrador, an outspoken sophomore lawmaker who only jumped into the race against McCarthy after other conservatives declined to run, argued that House Republicans should not respond to Cantor’s surprise primary loss by maintaining the status quo. Since 2011, McCarthy has served as majority whip, the No. 3 leadership post in the House.
Labrador threw his votes to McCarthy in a gesture of unity after the vote was announced, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) told reporters. He said Roskam did the same thing after the whip's race, on behalf of himself and Stutzman.
A solid fundraiser with strong relationships throughout the Republican conference, McCarthy had long prepared to succeed Cantor as majority leader whenever Boehner retired. But to the surprise of virtually everyone inside the Capitol, it was Cantor who left first, carried out of office by conservative voters in his own Richmond-area district.
When Cantor went down last week, McCarthy was ready.
While conservatives struggled to rally around a single challenger, he quickly consolidated support and pushed Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), the ambitious former GOP campaign chief, out of the race.
Labrador launched his bid Friday, but with so many Republicans already committed to McCarthy, the question became not whether he would win but how many votes he could secure.
House Republicans do not announce the vote tallies of their leadership elections, so only a few people in the leadership know how close the election was. Labrador won public support from just a handful of members who have long opposed Boehner and his leadership team.
Scalise also made an aggressive play for the whip’s post soon after Cantor’s defeat became official.
First elected to the House in 2008, he used his chairmanship of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) as a springboard to the party leadership. In challenging Roskam, who was McCarthy’s chief deputy, Scalise premised his candidacy on the desire of conservatives to install a Republican from a red state within a leadership team dominated by members from states that President Obama carried in the last two presidential elections.
Yet his coalition extended far beyond the south and included support from the conference’s highest-ranking woman, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a leadership ally.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Scalise pledged “a more united team” in the House and attributed his victory to a broad coalition.
“We built a strong team that was representative of the entire conference,” Scalise said.
Roskam, a mild-mannered fourth-term successor to Rep. Henry Hyde (R) representing suburban Chicago, struggled to overcome questions about his conservative bona fides and close ties to the party establishment. While he had been preparing for the race for years, he suffered from the conference’s desire to alter the status quo after Cantor’s loss and particularly after it became clear McCarthy had the votes to replace him.
After his loss, Roskam congratulated Scalise on running “a great campaign,” but he was mum on the question of whether he’d run again in the leadership elections this fall.
“Today is the day to celebrate Steve Scalise and his victory,” Roskam said. “Let’s focus on Steve, and I am committed to helping him succeed.”
Stutzman was the late entrant and wild card in the race. He drew support from ardent conservatives wary of Scalise’s ties to the leadership and his work with Democrats on a flood insurance deal that many on the right opposed as fiscally irresponsible.
Just 37 and in his second term, Stutzman said afterward he didn’t know yet if he would seek to replace Scalise as head of the RSC. But he also didn’t deny that his long-shot bid for whip was a way to position himself for future races.
“I’m going to get some sleep, and take a couple of days and we’ll look and see where’s the best place that we can help,” he said.
“I really enjoyed talking with all the members, and I have a better understanding of where our conference is at,” Stutzman added.
Scalise was seen as the leadership’s choice to lead the RSC after 2012, and he argued while wooing members that he would both bring a conservative voice to the top ranks and could bring conservatives votes along for leadership proposals.
Along with Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), McCarthy is an original “Young Gun” who helped lead Republicans back into the House majority during the wave election of 2010. He personally recruited dozens of members of that historic class, forging bonds that helped him fend off potential challengers in the past week.
Known for his frequent references to “Fight Club” and for showing clips from movies like “The Town” to boost morale, McCarthy has come under criticism for his inability to deliver at crucial times for the leadership. House Republicans have failed to garner enough party support to pass several major bills during his tenure, leading to whispers that his laid-back personality was not well suited to the job of whip.
In swapping the buttoned-up Cantor for the sunnier McCarthy, lawmakers say the major change will not be policy but personality.
“McCarthy’s more affable,” Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.) said on Wednesday. “He takes his coat off for every meeting. He rolls up his sleeves. He’s not worried about being formal and having to look polished. I think he just is who he is.”
McCarthy and Scalise will assume their new posts when Cantor steps aside on July 31.
Updated at 6:05 p.m.
Peter Schroeder, Cristina Marcos and Bernie Becker contributed.