Eric Cantor’s final days
By: Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
July 30, 2014 05:04 AM EDT
This is what the end looks like for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The Virginia Republican will soon trade his grand second-floor Capitol suite — with its massive conference room and flat-screen televisions displaying a Twitter feed — for a smaller hideaway elsewhere in the building. Steve Scalise, the Louisianan who will be the next majority whip, already has ideas about how he’ll divvy up Cantor’s old space.
Cantor has missed the Republican leadership meetings he once helped lead, even though they are held just steps from his office. He’s even skipped some votes on the House floor.
It’s an anticlimactic end to Cantor’s meteoric rise. His tenure as majority leader — defined in part by opposition to Obamacare and moments of friction with fellow GOP leaders — will close quietly on Thursday. One of the most dominant figures on Capitol Hill until his shocking primary loss in June, Cantor will spend the rest of this Congress as a member of the GOP rank and file.
Already, Scalise and Kevin McCarthy, the incoming majority leader, have taken on most of Cantor’s responsibilities. McCarthy has coordinated with committee chairmen, and Scalise is beginning to canvass for votes.
The ascendant leaders are also taking on Cantor’s staff. McCarthy is hiring Cantor’s well-respected policy director Neil Bradley, his foreign policy aide Robert Karem and his senior policy aide Roger Mahan. Scalise is bringing on Cantor’s senior policy adviser, Nicole Gustafson.
Cantor’s mammoth organization includes at least two dozen people who believed they were serving the next speaker of the House. Some of those staffers are searching for new jobs but few have landed anything.
Some are searching for careers on K Street — one is already lobbying for the insurance industry — and others will stay in the Capitol. Doug Heye, Cantor’s deputy chief of staff, is scheduled to appear in the coming days on “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Cantor’s colleagues are looking to usher him out of leadership with grace. McCarthy will host a reception honoring Cantor at the Capitol Hill Club that will be open only to members of Congress. Many colleagues are chipping in to help cover the costs of Cantor’s sprawling political organization.
Cantor’s budget, since his fall from leadership, is being cut so drastically that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is paying to keep some of his aides employed until the end of August.
Cantor is trying to exit graciously, as well. On Tuesday, at a weekly gathering of House Republicans, Cantor sat in a basement room in the Capitol with Boehner and McCarthy one last time as majority leader. Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the No. 4 House Republican, played a Hollywood-style highlight reel of Cantor’s career. It began with a clip of McMorris Rodgers introducing Cantor as majority leader on the House floor. The video showed Cantor’s work with children and his opposition to abortion. It ended with his name and title on the screen, until it faded to black.
Cantor thanked his colleagues, once again, and his staff — specifically longtime aides Kristi Way and Steve Stombres. Stombres, his top aide since 2001, will leave Capitol Hill when Cantor leaves leadership. He is already being mentioned as a contender for high-profile lobbying jobs but has not announced what he plans to do next. Before Cantor’s loss, Stombres, a member of the Fairfax City Council, decided he would not run again for that post.
Cantor’s office declined to comment for this story.
Cantor’s elevation into leadership started in 2003 under the tutelage of then-Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Texas Rep. Tom Delay. Since then, almost every decision in congressional Republican politics — from opposing President Barack Obama’s stimulus, to shifting the party’s sometimes gruff tone — has been made with Cantor’s imprimatur.
“He’s a tier-one talent,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), a close friend of Cantor who recently lost a leadership race. “He uniquely brought us together, along with John Boehner, at a time when the president was at a 70 percent approval, and he saw the weakness of the stimulus, rallied against it and that was the beginning of the GOP comeback. That was the first time the Republican base felt good about their party in Congress in a long time.”
Cantor’s exit robs the party of a fundraising powerhouse and a policy linchpin.
His political operation — chiefly his Every Republican is Crucial PAC — cut checks to colleagues across the country. It wasn’t unusual for Cantor to drop into a congressional district for a few hours, just to hold a fundraiser for a fellow Republican.
He frequently pulled five-figure donations from titans of finance in New York and redistributed the money to GOP campaign accounts in Washington.
“Eric’s network will be hard for any member to replicate,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who is close with Cantor and will become Scalise’s chief deputy whip Thursday. “He knows the inside and outside players, has depth on policy and understands what is politically possible; it’s a powerful combination.”
His policy agenda — Making Life Work — helped the party move away from the budget-slashing focus Cantor helped create. He helped solve thorny issues like the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. This time around, that legislation is stalled. He has made the Capitol much more efficient, streamlining unruly legislative workweeks, and getting lawmakers back home with much more frequency.
“One of the big losses in losing Eric is he is a great fundraiser for our team, but he was also great in policy for our team,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who is the vice chairman in charge of fundraising for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “He raised money in communities that were not traditional for Republican donors, like Wall Street and the Jewish community, and that’s going to be missed right now.”
His clashes with his colleagues have also been legendary. He had a rocky relationship with Boehner, which the pair later patched up. His once open dealings with the press turned sour, as he canceled his weekly meetings with reporters.
The majority of Cantor’s team has not yet locked up new jobs. In part, the job market is rocky for former Cantor staffers because they lost their patron on Capitol Hill. A lot of lobbying firms are waiting until after the November elections to make decisions on new hires.
Cantor’s next steps are not yet clear. Conversations with current and former aides, and lawmakers close to Cantor paint a picture of a man disappointed, but excited about what the future holds. He’s seemed chipper in the Capitol, if not a bit withdrawn from the hand-to-hand combat that is governing. He wants to stay involved in politics, but the private sector holds an allure.
“He is gifted, strategically, just a wide range of talent, so his absence at the leadership table is a very significant setback. He’s all talent,” Roskam said.