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The House GOP's Game of Musical Chairs Begins

Image: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor Defeated In Primary By Tea Party Challenger

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 11: U.S. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (C) passes through the Statuary Hall of the Capitol after a vote on the House floor June 11, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) has lost his Virginia primary to Tea Party challenger Dave Brat in the night before, opening up a slot for Majority Leader. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) Alex Wong / Getty Images

The House GOP’s game of musical chairs

With Eric Cantor’s loss behind us, the leadership race is on in the House, with two top seats possibly up for grabs when Republicans hold their emergency special election on June 19 . In his press conference yesterday, Cantor said that he’ll back House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy – the most logical heir - if he seeks the post. McCarthy’s using his skills as whip to gauge support, while Texas Republicans Reps. Pete Sessions and Jeb Hensarling (who’s perhaps McCarthy’s more formidable challenger) are also contenders for Cantor’s old job. Conservatives are openly pushing Hensarling to get into the race; Rep. Justin Amash tweeted last night “Tonight I will pray that @RepHensarling runs for majority leader. I respect him & trust him. Our country needs him.” But it’s not 100% clear that Hensarling will run, and Sessions – the only publicly declared candidate so far – is out talking up his credentials as a former NRCC chairman and saying he’ll make border security a top priority. Also, there will be a separate battle to replace McCarthy if he wins the promotion. There's room here for Boehner's right flank to make a stand now, or at least to lay down some serious markers for the big shakeup they've dreamed of in 2015.

The need for speed

But, for now, the big question now is: How soon does this get wrapped up and how public do the machinations become? The quicker, the better for McCarthy and Boehner allies who want a resolution with minimal disruption before the midterms. But a long, public debate would empower House conservatives who want to use Cantor’s ouster as a chance to send a real message to leadership NOW instead of waiting until after the election. If McCarthy wraps up support early, this could shake out with the right flank getting their own win with a McCarthy successor like Rep. Steve Scalise, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. He’s expected to duke it out in the race for Whip with Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois. One thing folks need to realize about leadership elections, they rarely make the most political sense in terms of electoral politics; they really are about personal relationships and for now, that’s why, McCarthy is the favorite. But there is real unease among some conservatives and if Hensarling runs, he could catch fire.

The rules of the game

Here’s how the mechanics of this will work, by the way, via NBC’s Frank Thorp: “The winner of the Majority Leader race only needs a simple majority. If there are more than two candidates and no one candidate gets a majority, the candidate in last place gets dropped from the ballot and they vote again. If McCarthy wins, they vote for a new whip, if he were to lose he would hold on to his job as whip.” It’s unlikely BOTH Sessions and Hensarling run since both would like a united Texas delegation behind them.

It’s not just jockeying Hill players, it’s the public

These primaries and leadership fights demonstrate a BIG trend for both parties captured by the latest national survey from the Pew Research Center: the public really is more deeply polarized than ever. The poll finds that the percentage of Americans who express consistently partisan views has doubled in the past 20 years. And within each party, the share of people saying they have a “deeply unfavorable” view of the other side of the aisle has also more than doubled, with a majority of those partisans saying the other party represents “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” For these folks, an elected official – especially a congressional leader -- reaching across the aisle is a slippery slope to enabling the bad guys. This lede NYT quote from Newt Gingrich, himself once a deeply polarizing House Speaker, captures the crystallized animosity you’re seeing play out in this Hill drama now: “If you’re a conservative, you think Barack Obama is literally destroying the country you love. And you watch your leadership and they seem unwilling to take him head on, and also unable to outmaneuver him.”

The ‘A-Bomb’ Backfires?

At First Read, we’ve dubbed the charge of “amnesty” the “A-Bomb,” because it’s often the last, most deadly weapon in conservatives’ arsenal when they’re up against the wall in an intra-GOP battle. Dave Brat was the latest to use it effectively against Cantor, while you saw failed Tea Party challengers like Matt Bevin and Lindsey Graham’s opponents try to deploy it in the waning days of their campaigns. So check out this observation from Rand Paul (who supports an immigration overhaul but voted against the Senate bill last year): “I think we’ve been somewhat trapped by rhetoric and words, and amnesty is a word that's kind of trapped us," Paul said on a conference call organized by a pro-immigration reform group. “We're trapped in a word that means different things to different people.” Paul’s acknowledging a question we often ask: So does any path to citizenship for any undocumented immigrant – whether they served in the military or were brought here as an infant – mean amnesty? What about legalized permanent status? Or even executive action on deportation? Remember who said this? “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” That would be Ronald Reagan.

Losing ground in Iraq

Here’s the other BIG news dominating the news cycle today: Less than a month after Obama’s big West Point speech about the merits of a lighter U.S. footprint in places where allies can share the fight against insurgents, the unfolding drama in Iraq may be becoming its own counterargument to that notion. Fighters in the Al Qaeda offshoot ISIS have seized Mosul and Tikrit, and they’re swiftly surging towards Baghdad. The New York Times reports this morning that the United States has rejected requests from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to consider airstrikes against insurgents as they take back ground once controlled by U.S. forces. It’s fodder for critics who say the lack of sufficient security and a residual U.S. presence in the country now means that the sacrifices of American soldiers there are being wasted. But then there’s this question: how long would those critics want substantial U.S. residual forces there – in a region where borders are increasingly blurred and conflicts are inextricably intertwined? Polling shows the American public doesn’t have the stomach for a lengthy presence, but these headlines can’t be helping the White House narrative nonetheless.

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