By Russell Berman - 06/11/14 05:59 PM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Wednesday announced he would step down from his leadership post at the end of July, cutting short his tenure less than a day after he lost his reelection bid to a little-known primary challenger.
The move cemented an abrupt and shocking fall for a Republican star widely seen as the next Speaker of the House, and it officially launched a shake-up in the party hierarchy that began within hours after Cantor’s defeat to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat. Elections to replace Cantor will be held on June 19, a week from Thursday.
Cantor plans to serve out his term in the House but will not mount a long-shot write-in bid to reclaim his seat in the November general election. He said nothing about his future plans other than to pledge to fight for conservative candidates and policies.
“While I will not be on the ballot in November, I will be a champion for conservatives across the nation who are dedicated to preserving liberty and providing opportunity,” he said at a press conference Wednesday.
The seven-term Republican made his announcement first at an emotional, closed-door party meeting that lawmakers said was punctuated several times by standing ovations.
While Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) wept, Cantor struck an upbeat note in his remarks to the colleagues that elected him. Cantor, who is the only Jewish Republican in the House, shared the story of an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor named Estelle who told him at a recent remembrance ceremony, “Suffering is a part of life. Misery is a choice.”
Boehner praised Cantor and recalled his own ouster from a leadership post in 1998.
“This is a speech I never expected to give,” he said. “I want to start by offering a heartfelt thanks to Eric and his staff for their service to our conference, our institution and our country. We've been through a lot together.”
The Speaker quoted Winston Churchill in suggesting that at 51, Cantor may have another act in his political career: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
After the meeting, Cantor smiled as he walked into a room packed with reporters, gamely answering questions about his upset loss.
He thanked his congressional staff, security guards and his campaign team, and he dismissed a critique that he prioritized his own political advancement in the House over the needs of his constituents.
“I was in my district every week,” Cantor said. “So, there was a balance between holding a leadership position and serving constituents at home, but never was there a day that I did not put the constituents of the 7th District first, and I will continue to do so.”
Yet he declined several opportunities to reflect on the reasons for his defeat, saying he would leave “political analysis” to others.
“In the end the voters chose a different candidate,” he said.
“I really do believe we did everything we could,” he added. “There was a tremendous outpouring of support on all sides, and you know, again, I just came up short, and the voters elected another candidate.”
Cantor wouldn’t say whether he thought the election was a referendum on immigration reform, nor whether his loss should serve as a warning to fellow Republicans.
He repeatedly defended the House GOP’s record against criticism from Democrats that it ignored the nation’s most pressing problems.
“Some people think Washington gets nothing done,” he said. “Well, there’s a stack of bills sitting in the Senate that shows House Republicans do get things done. We get a lot done.”
His announcement capped a tumultuous day on Capitol Hill.
Grim-faced colleagues, speaking of Cantor almost as if he had died, struggled to digest a defeat that virtually no one in Washington had seen coming.
Several members emerged from the 30-minute meeting appearing shocked and saddened, still reeling from an election upset not seen in decades.
“I’ve never seen such grace in all my life. He’s doing the right thing for the conference; he wants to keep us all united,” said a visibly emotional Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). “He’s going to do well into the future, and we’re going to stand behind him.”
Peter Schroeder, Molly K. Hooper and Erik Wasson contributed.