Rep. Eric Cantor said Wednesday that he will step down as House majority leader at the end of July, after losing a primary election Tuesday, igniting a short, spirited race to fill his post in a vote of the full House GOP next week.
Mr. Cantor lost to tea party-backed challenger David Brat in one of the biggest upsets in recent political history, quashing what had been a steady rise for the 51-year-old and dealing a blow to Virginia Republicans.
“Each setback is an opportunity, and there’s always optimism for the future,” Mr. Cantor said Wednesday after he told fellow Republicans of his decision to step down from his leadership post, effective July 31. He said he will serve out the rest of his term.
Republicans said they expect the House to tilt even more conservative in the wake of Mr. Cantor’s defeat because of the candidates hoping to replace him as majority leader and because of the lessons lawmakers will draw from the Virginia primary.
The contest to replace Mr. Cantor started just hours after the election results were called, with potential candidates reaching out to colleagues to gauge support.
Rep. Pete Sessions said Wednesday that he also would pursue the job of majority leader. The name of a fellow Texan, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, also has been mentioned.
As for the whip’s post, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam of Illinois expressed interest.
Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, said he expects the elections will result in a more conservative leadership team.
“There’s a lot of names, but they are all conservative,” he said. “I’m hearing some of the other leadership members who are still wanting to stay in, but it sounds like a lot of movement out there when it comes to a more conservative faction in leadership.”
Asked whether House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, was safe in his post, Mr. Fleming said, “Undoubtedly everything is going to be up for discussion.”
Mr. Fleming, a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, said Mr. Cantor likely lost the primary election because conservative voters blame Republican leadership for not fighting hard enough against the Obama administration’s agenda.
“We are getting so much frustration [and] so much anger from our constituents who tell us that we must stop this administration, [that] they feel it is lawless,” he said. “They are angry at Democrats, but they are angry at us for not pushing back harder. I think that manifests itself in our leadership because they know there is very little we can do without leadership on that matter.”