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.
One of them was Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. If he is chosen to replace Mr. Cantor, he would create a vacancy in House Republicans’ No. 3 spot.
SEE ALSO: House members already trying to fill Cantor’s leadership spot after Va. primary loss
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.
Mr. Cantor said Mr. McCarthy, one of his early proteges, will have his full support.
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.”
In his meeting with fellow House Republicans, Mr. Cantor was lauded as a key player in the party’s ascent to power in the 2010 elections.
Mr. McCarthy recalled how Mr. Cantor rallied House Republicans to unanimously oppose President Obama’s stimulus plan in 2009.
“We’re in a majority now because of Eric Cantor,” Mr. McCarthy said, according to another lawmaker who was there.
Strategists said Mr. Cantor’s leadership efforts may have hurt him back home.
“Eric has been part of the political establishment,” said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a fellow Virginia Republican. “They did it in a primary and not a convention, and I think that shows the mood of the 7th District.”
Although Mr. Cantor held an outsized financial advantage, much of his campaign money went to radio and television attack ads, which Mr. Brat accepted as free publicity.
“He ran an air war,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “It wasn’t about the money he spent, but how.”
Indeed, from bakeries, cross-country airline travel, charter jets and expensive catering, much of the millions of dollars the Cantor campaign spent went to businesses far outside of his district and seemed to have little to do with his primary race.
Mr. Cantor spent nearly $100,000 — nearly half of what his opponent spent the entire campaign — in catering fees at Bobby Van’s restaurant, a favorite gathering spot for lobbyists and fundraisers just blocks from the Capitol.
The campaign also disclosed more than $2,500 in campaign-related expenditures at the Eden Roc, a resort hotel in Miami Beach, about $22,000 at the Marriott Marquis in New York City, $599 in golf fees at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, and just over $1,200 in catering costs at Starbucks in Washington, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
“Would anybody argue he spent the money wisely based on the expenditures? No,” Mr. O’Connell said.
A warning rang out in May when activists ousted Mr. Cantor’s preferred candidate from his position as chairman of the 7th District party committee. A restless crowd also booed Mr. Cantor as he tried to defend his record.
Pat Mullins, chairman of the state party, tried to put a positive spin on Mr. Cantor’s loss.
“With our ticket completed, we move on to the general election unified and ready to work,” he said.
But Mr. Cantor’s loss will almost force less-heralded Republican figures to step up. It presents former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is running against Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner, with an opportunity to take a broader role in the state party after Mr. Gillespie successfully navigated the nomination process at a party convention last week.
Mr. Cantor, in his remarks Tuesday evening and Wednesday, sounded simultaneously conciliatory, optimistic and grateful.
“He realized that he might not be done yet,” Mr. O’Connell said. “He can still run for governor. He could still run for a lot of things.”
• Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.