If House Republicans respond to the shocking primary defeat of Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., by elevating his handpicked successor Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., it would be beyond tone-deaf. It would be pure absurdity.
Though we'll never know precisely why Cantor was knocked off by Dave Brat, an obscure economics professor, it's clear that in recent years, Cantor lost the trust of the conservative base and became a symbol of Washington. Whether it was on immigration or fighting to shrink the size and scope of government, Cantor was increasingly at odds with conservatives and far too cozy with business interests.
His defeat presents House Republicans with an opportunity to signal — ahead of the 2014 midterm elections — that they're listening to conservatives. But by elevating McCarthy, who is next in line as whip, they'd be sending the opposite message — that they're determined to crush conservatives.
Several groups placed McCarthy's voting record well to the left of Cantor's for 2013. The American Conservative Union rated McCarthy at 72 percent compared with 84 percent for Cantor; Heritage Action ratings place Cantor at 53 percent and McCarthy at 42 percent; and Club for Growth had Cantor at 68 percent and McCarthy at 53 percent. Moving away from conservative groups, the National Journal rated Cantor the 80th most conservative member of the House while McCarthy was 170th.
McCarthy voted for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that included spending that was unrelated to providing emergency aid, fought for the farm and food stamp bill, fought reforms to the federal sugar program, and backed an extension of the corporate welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank.
In January, he also supported a path to legal status for immigrants who entered this country illegally.
As Red State's Erick Erickson pointed out, McCarthy even participated in a retreat for liberal Republicans at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla. The event was hosted by the Republican Main Street Partnership, which is a group run by representative-turned-lobbyist Steve LaTourette aimed at defeating conservatives. The organization includes big labor unions among its donors.
McCarthy's ascent might make more sense from leadership's perspective if there were evidence that he was effective as a whip. In reality, his vote-counting operation routinely miscalculated on votes during the debt ceiling impasse, “fiscal cliff” tax talks, and other key points.
But part of the problem with a leader like McCarthy is that if conservatives have the perception that leadership is out to undermine them, they’re reflexively suspicious of whatever legislation the conference is pushing. If there were a leader who had more clout with conservatives, he or she would be in a better position to convince the right that a given bill is the best deal they’re likely to get.
It would be bizarre if instead of going in a new direction after this stunning defeat, House Republicans just rallied around Cantor's own pick. It's especially demoralizing to conservatives whose energy the GOP will need this November.