WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Wednesday he'll step down from his leadership post at the end of July, sparking a round of mid-year leadership elections in a divided and still reeling GOP.
Cantor announced his decision to the GOP rank-and-file in a closed door meeting, and then took questions from reporters. The leadership elections will be June 19, one week from today.
"It is with great humility I do so knowing the tremendous honor it has been to hold this position," Cantor said. He will remain in Congress until this term ends after the November elections.
Cantor essentially endorsed Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority whip who is said to be interested in the post, to succeed him in leadership. "He'd make an outstanding majority leader," Cantor said.
Cantor's decision follows his historic defeat Tuesday in the Virginia Republican primary against a little-known opponent, Tea Party-inspired economics professor David Brat. Democrats are unlikely to seriously contest the race in his heavily Republican Richmond-area district.
Cantor is the second highest-ranking member of GOP leadership and was on track to become the next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the only Jewish Republican serving in Congress, and he is the only majority leader in congressional history to lose in a primary fight. Besides scrambling the leadership team, Cantor's defeat also upends the House's agenda ahead of the 2014 elections.
Late Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, issued a short statement praising Cantor as "a good friend and a great leader."
"Few have fought harder or have accomplished more in the pursuit of solutions-based polices to better the lives of Americans than Eric Cantor," added Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "Every single member of this conference is indebted to Eric's graciousness and leadership."
McCarthy is expected to make a play for the majority leader's job. Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, confirmed to reporters that he'll also seek the post. Speculation has also focused on Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, as a Cantor successor.
McCarthy's play would open up his post, the third-ranking job in the House. His chief deputy, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., is likely to seek the job, and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is also viewed as a potential candidate.
Reuters reported Wednesday that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he would not be a candidate for the job, which has "just not been my interest."
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said he believed McCarthy has the support to become the next majority leader, but that he would like to see a "red state conservative" take over as whip in that scenario.
Stutzman praised Cantor's leadership but said he was likely defeated by voters who were frustrated that he focused too much on Washington. "I'm afraid he worked too hard for us and not making sure he was taking care of things back in his district," he said.
Cantor's loss has already reignited the debate over the intra-party GOP war over its direction. While Cantor worked constantly to try and bridge the divide between the traditional establishment forces and the Tea Party grass-roots, his defeat invigorated Tea Party groups, and in particular conservative opposition to an overhaul of immigration laws.
"This victory is a referendum on the establishment that has gone along with policies that have completely left out the voice of the people," said Jenny Beth Martin, chairman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund.
Tom Donahue, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Bloomberg TV that the Tea Party's role in the race was exaggerated. "The Tea Party had nothing to do with this," he said. "They didn't put any money in. They didn't have any people there. It was sort of an attractive professor in a very, very conservative district in Virginia. And everybody was surprised."
Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were stunned by Cantor's loss. "I thought he was an excellent leader," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "But you have to respect the vote of the people."
Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, R-Florida, said Cantor's loss is a "huge tsunami" for House Republicans, and it will not be easy to fill the void. "He's been one of the guys with the big ideas," he said, "I think he's going to be gravely missed."
Contributing: Catalina Camia