WASHINGTON — Majority Leader Eric Cantor's resounding defeat Tuesday sounded the opening gun for an unexpected Republican leadership scramble that could vault California's Kevin McCarthy to the House of Representatives' top spot.
But McCarthy, 49, currently the chamber's majority whip and No. 3 Republican, is not the only GOP lawmaker seeing opportunity in Cantor's primary loss. Other ambitious up-and-comers are likewise calculating odds.
"I think Kevin is well liked," said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, "but that's why we have elections."
Cantor indicated Wednesday that he would be stepping down from the majority leader's position July 31.
Cantor spoke to reporters late Wednesday afternoon after an at-times emotional meeting of the House Republican caucus. Asked whether he would back anyone for the post he is giving up, Cantor said that if McCarthy seeks the job, he would support him.
Cantor also praised the tea party, which has celebrated his defeat because it has long viewed the majority leader, despite a solid conservative voting record, as too willing to compromise on issues like immigration and the government shutdown. Still, the Virginia lawmaker said, "I think this town should always be about striking common ground."
McCarthy hasn't officially said that he would seek Cantor's job, but it would be hard to find someone on Capitol Hill who believed otherwise. That would create an opening for the majority whip's position, and Republican Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Peter Roskam of Illinois have announced they will both seek the post.
Other openings could be created further down the leadership ladder, depending on what happens. The fact that McCarthy already has a whip operation in place could give him an advantage, since the election will be held in a week.
Other real or potential House leadership candidates include Texas Republicans Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Rules Committee; and Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the House Republican Conference chairwoman and fourth-ranking GOP lawmaker, took herself out of the leadership shuffle. McMorris Rodgers is the GOP's highest-ranking woman in Congress.
The dynamics are all the trickier because of recurring questions about how long current House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio will keep his physically and politically exhausting job.
McCarthy, assuming he seeks the majority leader's post, also could run into considerable pressure to give a leadership voice to the most vocal of Southern conservatives.
"I think there's been a geographic area of the country that has not been represented in leadership, and I think that would be determinative of what happens," noted Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga.