Sad, Shocked, Oblivious: The Capitol Reacts to Cantor Defeat
Wednesday turned out to be a tough day for Rep. Steve King to traverse the Capitol.
Pinned against an ornate wall outside the House chamber, the Iowa Republican said the throngs of reporters prowling for members to talk to during the afternoon vote series was “about as big a press gauntlet as I remember.”
As a top talker on immigration policy, King was in high demand from members of the Fourth Estate looking for insight into House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in a central Virginia Republican primary. King said he was also having a rough day emotionally.
“I will tell you, for me, I carry in me a sadness for Eric Cantor and his family,” King told CQ Roll Call. He paused, and sighed. “Now though, we need to look to the future.”
The Republican Study Committee didn’t discuss the leadership shakeup Wednesday morning, according to King, but he admitted to having many “one-on-one” conversations in an effort to sense the mood of the conference.
“There’s no question it is a cataclysmic shock,” King said as Capitol Police officers guarded the door, attempting to shoo back the reporters trying to pepper his colleagues with questions about the stunning defeat. “Perhaps as far as a single primary election, I can’t think of anything in the history of this country that has been so abrupt and so surprising.”
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, made a stoic entrance for the first vote series of the day from Statuary Hall. Blinding flashes and a chorus of camera clicks filled the air as Boehner strode into the chamber, flanked by his security detail.
His chief spokesman held court with about a dozen reporters in one of many large scrums that took place during the afternoon vote. The muggy June air outside the Capitol felt stifling in the second floor corridor, a result of tension in the chamber and body heat of additional reporters. Press galleries on the House side of the Capitol were packed, and photographers roamed the halls, trying to get a shot of the defeated leader.
“It’s the buzz . . . it’s been the buzz ever since it happened,” Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., confirmed. To fight the heat, and fit the fashion trend of the day, Cohen was decked out in a seersucker jacket. He predicted the upset, which many have said was a result of Cantor’s position on immigration, would “chill people’s interest in putting their necks out at all.”
“I think it’s going to have a very bad effect on legislation, not that we’ve passed much legislation anyway, but I don’t think you’re going to see any immigration reform or anything at all major happen the rest of this Congress, and maybe as long as the Republicans are in charge,” Cohen added.
Not all Democrats were quick to draw political conclusions from the upset. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., co-chairman of his caucus’ Steering and Policy Committee, tucked himself into a cushy leather chair in the back corner of the Speaker’s Lobby and scanned the Marketplace pages of the Wall Street Journal as the 1:15 p.m. vote series began.
He said he hadn’t had a lot of interaction with his colleagues since Tuesday night’s news. “I’m sure it will be interesting during the vote,” he said, rising slowly from his seat and heading to the floor.
Off the floor, a reporter joked with Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, asking after a light slap on the back, “Can we call you the dean now?”
The Northern Virginia Democrat, currently serving his third term, laughed heartily. All day, people asked Connolly what happened in the 7th District and whether he saw the defeat coming.
“No,” he answered. “I knew there was trouble brewing in the south because of the convention he had,” Connolly said, referring to the heckling activists that booed Cantor during a Republican convention in May. “I mean, that was a warning bell, but did I think he would be toppled? No. . . . I was as shocked as almost everybody else out there.”
Capitol employees, including the employees directing oblivious tourists from the elevator, said they were bummed and surprised by the defeat. Cantor was a friendly, familiar face to some and often stopped to smile at them in the halls of the Capitol.
A middle-school group touring the first floor of the Capitol Wednesday strolled past the row of reporters staking out House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s office on their way to pick up gallery passes to watch the action in the chamber.
Like most of the mid-June tourists clipping down the marble corridors, the youngsters sporting matching emerald polo shirts went about their tour with little knowledge of, or concern for, the deliberations about which Republican should control the rapidly changing, relatively dysfunctional chamber in the wake of the defeat.
The actual dean of Congress, Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., rejected categorizing the loss as “historic” and said he would prefer to say “momentous.”
“I haven’t been able to sense the mood out yet,” Dingell said. “On our side, they’re trying to figure out what it means. On the Republican side, some of them are trying to figure out what it all means, and some of them are trying to run for leadership positions. What it means is the country’s going to be hurt, this place is going to be hurt; Congress is not going to move forward, and they’re going to spend their time fighting with each other instead of working with us to work out the nation’s problems . . . but that’s part of what brought this on.”