Commentary Magazine


Cantor Checks Out Early; Will It Matter?

When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary election earlier this year in a major upset, it seemed clear right away that he could not keep his leadership position until the end of his term. Because he was on his way out, he would lose too much of his effectiveness at a crucial time for the GOP, which only held the House. Furthermore, Harry Reid’s procedural shenanigans and wanton destruction of Senate traditions and practices has made the GOP virtually invisible in the Senate. With a White House that doesn’t appear to recognize any limits on its power, the right would need their House leadership in midseason form. Having Cantor remain leader would have been a strategic limitation.

It was a major coup for Cantor’s relatively unknown GOP challenger, Dave Brat. He had been abandoned even by Tea Party groups, outspent by a wide margin, and didn’t have much name recognition. So he seemed content to wait for the general election, in which he was favored, and to take his spot in the House and begin to work his way up the ladder. But today, plans were changed. Cantor announced that, whereas right after the election pains were taken to stress that the outgoing leader was leaving his leadership post but not his seat, he is now apparently doing the latter as well. As the New York Times reports:

Representative Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican whose last day as House majority leader was Thursday, said on Friday that he would resign his seat effective Aug. 18 in hopes that his successor will be able to participate in the lame-duck session after the November elections.
Mr. Cantor, 51, made the announcement in an op-ed article published on The Richmond Times-Dispatch website. …

Mr. Cantor, who has served in Congress for 14 years, said that he would ask Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, to call a special election for his seat on Nov. 4 — the same day as the general election — a move that would allow the winner to take Mr. Cantor’s seat immediately rather than wait for the next Congress to be seated in January. The winner would also enjoy seniority over the other Representatives first elected that day.
Mr. McAuliffe told the newspaper that he was “heartsick” about Mr. Cantor’s loss because the state was losing a senior voice in Congress, but there was no indication whether he would honor the request for a special election.
Virginia’s Seventh Congressional District is conservative, which would favor Mr. Brat’s chances in November, when he will face the Democratic nominee, Jack Trammell, and James Carr, a Libertarian. Both Mr. Brat and Mr. Trammell are professors at Randolph-Macon College.

The advantages are clear but limited. The Times originally wrote that the winner of the election, if held in this manner, would gain Cantor’s seniority. That’s not the case, and the article has since been corrected. If he wins, Brat would have seniority over the others elected that day, as he would take office before them. Had he been able to take over Cantor’s seniority, Cantor’s exit strategy would be clear. As it stands now, the benefits are a bit hazy, other than giving his Virginia district a slight advantage over other seats won by new members that day.

Larry Sabato says it’s self-interest and generosity, for Dave Brat will reap the benefits. Robert Tracinski says it’s self-interest (a head start on his post-congressional career) with a touch of boredom (he’s given up on the lame-duck session producing anything worth staying in the House over). I imagine we’ll find out more after he actually steps down later this month.

Conservatives, in this case, might as well pay more attention to the effect and less to the intentions at play. The lame-duck session may very well turn out to be more important than it might seem at the moment, depending on the results on Election Day. If the midterm elections produce a GOP wave, it’s possible the Senate will change hands, or else come very close. If Republicans make significant gains, the lame-duck session will be the Reid-led Democrats’ last chance during the Obama administration to make good use of their Senate majority.

Of course, their initiatives would not get very far in the House, so there are even limits here. But Reid’s actions in the Senate are not meant to enact legislation and fix problems as much as they are to manipulate a gullible media into portraying Republicans in the most negative light possible. As such, the Democratic Senate’s actions mostly consist of publicity stunts. The exception is for judicial and other nominees, which Reid can get confirmed by using the nuclear option, which he cannot do if he’s in the minority. If the midterms go well for the GOP, expect Reid to go on a two-month binge, in which case yes, the lame-duck session will matter some.

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