It was only a question of when.
Republicans have a 34-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, solidified by the latest round of redistricting, and are poised to add to that number after the 2014 elections. Speaker John Boehner, age 64, a 23-year veteran of the House, has led a fractious Republican caucus since 2011. At some point, conventional wisdom held, either sooner or later, Boehner would retire, and Eric Cantor, age 51, would glide seamlessly into his place, leading a strong Republican majority well into the future.
It would be the completion of a meteoric rise that began with Cantor's election in 2000. In only his second term, he was elevated to chief deputy majority whip, leapfrogging far more senior members. He easily won the number-two spot after the 2008 elections. While guessing at Boehner's departure date has been a regular Washington parlor game, no one seriously questioned that his majority leader would replace him.
On Tuesday night, it would appear, the long-accepted Republican succession plan hit a roadblock in the form of David Brat, an economics professor who stunned the political world by defeating Cantor in a Republican primary. What now?
Cantor's unexpected exit has ushered in a Republican "Game of Thrones," or "House of Cards," depending on which pop culture analogy you prefer. Members of the leadership and committee chairs began angling for different positions in the leadership and committee chairs. Speculation began almost immediately on how the next speaker's race would play out. Would Cantor's successor as majority leader ascend easily to the speakership, as he was expected to do?
The fact of the matter, constitutionally-speaking, is that nothing has to change. After losing his seat in the House, Cantor has certainly lost pole position to be the next speaker. But that doesn't mean he won't be the next speaker.
Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution provides: "The House of Representatives shall chuse their speaker and other Officers." That's it. No requirement for age, natural-born citizenship, residency, and, most importantly for Eric Cantor, nothing requiring membership in the House of Representatives.
This was not an oversight on the part of the Framers. While speakers have always been members of the House, our "other Officers" - the clerk, sergeant-at-arms, chief administrative officer, and chaplain - have never been. Initially, the speaker of the House, like the presiding officer of the Congress of the Confederation and Continental Congress, was a mostly ceremonial, ministerial role, not the leader of any political party or faction. In the first congress, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania sat in the chair while James Madison and others pushed legislation creating the Bill of Rights, cabinet departments, federal judiciary, and the first tax code.
Much will depend on the identity of Cantor's successor as majority leader, their performance in office, the timing of Boehner's departure, and the composition of the Republican caucus at the time. But Cantor cannot be counted out for the position he has long coveted - and until Tuesday night the job everyone presumed was his.Chris DeRose is the author of The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them, Founding Rivals: Madison vs. Monroe, the Bill of Rights, and the Election That Saved a Nation, and Congressman Lincoln: The Making of America's Greatest President. He is a visiting assistant professor of constitutional law at Arizona Summit Law School. Connect with him at chrisderosebooks.com or @chrisderose.