TIME Congress

Here Comes the Game of Thrones to Replace Eric Cantor

(L) House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy-leaves House Speaker John Boehner's office on June 11, 2014 in Washington. (C) Eric Cantor arrives for a news conference in Washington on June 11, 2014. (R) Representative Pete Sessions during a news conference to launch the Yellow Pages Caucus February 7, 2012 in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite—AP; Jim Bourg—Reuters; Alex Wong—Getty Images

Inside the race for the next majority leader

Eric Cantor got moon-doored Tuesday in a primary election plot-twist worthy of Game of Thrones. And like the television series about dragons and swords, the race to succeed Cantor is likely to be a brutal and ultimately entertaining affair. At stake may be nothing less than the future of the Republican Party.

GOP leaders set June 19 as the election date so they could truncate the campaign in the hopes of avoiding the Tea Party coalescing behind their own candidate. Because if they do, there’s little the establishment can do to stop them: they will elect the next majority leader and heir apparent when House Speaker John Boehner steps down. Functionally, little changes as long as Boehner is speaker, but rumors have been swirling for months that Boehner is itching to go—an exit now likely delayed by years.

There are now 240 Republicans in Congress, and first one to a majority will win, though multiple votes can be held to winnow a large field. Boehner typically swings 40 votes. If the 170-member conservative Republican Study Committee splits between two or more candidates, as they have in the past, then Boehner’s votes win the day for whichever candidate he picks. But if all 170 back one candidate, that candidate wins.

That said, with Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican, dropping out of the race on Thursday morning, the Tea Party field is wide open, with no members coming forward to make a claim on the job. (As they say on the medieval television show, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”) Hensarling’s staff, sources say, were meeting to strategize on his bid to challenge Boehner for his speakership in January when Cantor’s returns started coming in. Hensarling has probably decided to hold his fire for the January leadership elections at the beginning of the next Congress and the top slot.

So as it stands, there are two potential candidates in the running—neither of the Tea Party ilk. The field, still fluid now, will be set by Monday when campaigning will begin in earnest. Others are likely to throw their hat in the ring, but they are not going to show their hand just yet.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, California:

When Cantor announced his exit on Wednesday, he threw his support behind McCarthy, with whom he is very close. Cantor and McCarthy started Young Guns, the campaign that is credited with helping win back the House in 2010. That said, an endorsement from Cantor these days could prove detrimental with the Tea Party wing of the conference still mad at Cantor for what they see as his betrayal on a host of issues in recent months. Notably, Paul Ryan, former vice presidential nominee and the third Young Gun founder, said Thursday after Hensarling dropped out that he would now vote for McCarthy.

Allies of McCarthy, who has yet to even say if he’s running for certain, say he has the votes, according to the Washington Post. But leadership races are confidence games. In 2002, Nancy Pelosi claimed she had the votes to become whip in a race against Steny Hoyer. Though she probably didn’t actually have the votes, her certainty convinced the caucus to vote for her and she carried the day. The ballot is secret, so claims that anyone has the vote locked down are almost impossible to prove and often come up false when actual voting begins. Leadership races are akin to the College of Cardinals electing a new pope, nothing said before they enter conclave is meaningful.

“Hopefully we get this taken care of as soon as possible,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican and McCarthy supporter, who gathered with upwards of 35 members yesterday in McCarthy’s office about an hour before Cantor told his conference he would step down from his leadership post. “That’s the best thing we can do for the conference.”

If McCarthy, 49, does win the slot, it would cap an even more meteoric rise than Cantor, who became majority leader after just a decade in Congress. McCarthy, who represents the most conservative district in California, was only elected to Congress in 2006.

Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas:

Sessions, 59, is a close ally of Boehner’s and ran the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2010 cycle, when Republicans gained control of the House. He had hoped to be rewarded with a leadership post after that achievement, but lost the whip race to McCarthy. This time around, he’s itching for a rematch and has already come out swinging, saying the conference needs a more conservative and experienced hand at the tiller.

“I believe I can do a good job. I believe I’ve led our team before. I’ve led our team to victory for the NRCC,” Sessions tells TIME. “I believe we brought conservatives up all across the country. We made us the majority and we’ve kept that majority—two of the largest majorities we’ve had in 70 or 80 years. And I think that’s a job of a majority [leader] is to win. I think we can continue winning that way.”

Sessions faced his own primary challenger this election, but he won easily. He enters the race the underdog, having already lost one leadership contest to McCarthy, but with this conference you never know.

Let the games begin.

Additional reporting by Alex Rogers

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