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High-profile battle on for Cantor's leadership post

By Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 6:28 PM EDT, Thu June 12, 2014
  • Eric Cantor's primary loss opens up spot in leadership hierarchy
  • Race to replace him as majority leader has become a high-profile fight
  • Pete Sessions of Texas says his "red-state" sensibility is needed

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A day after Eric Cantor announced he would step down as majority leader, the race to replace him has become a high-profile fight within the Republican Party, pitting geographical and political factions against each other.

Appealing directly to the conservative base of the GOP - Texas Republican Pete Sessions argues he should replace Cantor on the leadership roster because he is a red-state Republican who can bring that sensibility to the party hierarchy.

"I come from a red state and see things in terms of what is good for the country and modeling those things that are great for the country, and selling those attributes is what will help us to win the House, win the Senate, win the presidency," Sessions told reporters after meeting with GOP members of the Texas delegation.

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His chief competitor and considered frontrunner for the job, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, comes from the blue state of California.

Sessions was careful not to directly criticize McCarthy, but he's clearly trying to appeal to tea party backed conservatives who want a seat at the leadership table.

Cantor endorsed McCarthy to serve as his successor, but House Speaker John Boehner declined to weigh in on who should serve as his top deputy.

"The members will make the decision about who the next majority leader is," Boehner said.

Speaking of Texas, Sessions said "we're the largest Republican delegation and we bring a whole lot more to the table when we work together."

House leadership elections are next Thursday and it's not just the fight for majority leader that is now a red-state vs. blue-state battle.

So is the competition for the No. 3 slot, GOP whip -- the person whose job it is to keep order in the caucus on legislative issues and round up votes -- should McCarthy succeed Cantor.

Illinois Rep. Pete Roskam, who has developed his own network working as McCarthy's deputy, is campaigning to move up. But he faces two red-state Republicans -- Louisiana's Steve Scalise, who chairs the group of fiscal conservatives in the House, and Indiana's Marlin Stutzman.

As for Sessions bravado, even some of his backers admit McCarthy will be hard to beat.

"I think McCarthy's got this wrapped up. I think he had it wrapped up pretty quick," Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who supports McCarthy, told reporters.

Kinzinger, from a blue state himself, later told CNN he doesn't buy the red-state versus blue-state argument since House members represent districts, not states, and House GOP leaders all represent conservative districts.

When Sessions was asked about McCarthy having it locked up, his Texas colleague, Randy Weber, chimed in saying, "Eric Cantor thought he had it locked up, too, down in his own district."

"Thank you, that's perhaps a good point," added Sessions.

Weber told reporters later, "it's not over 'till the votes are out. Many a horse race starts out with the horse right out of the gate that doesn't win."

Sessions is also arguing he can avoid embarrassing moments like ones that happened over the past couple of years when GOP leaders had to suddenly pull legislation from the House floor because it lacked votes, and other times when measures that leaders thought would pass were defeated.

"We have found ourselves tangled with each other," argued Sessions.

The Texas GOP delegation has 24 members, the largest in the House Republican conference. Several members leaving Thursday's meeting told reporters they're united behind Sessions.

Texas Rep John Carter told reporters, "fresh blood is always good at the top of the leadership and I think Pete will be a fresh voice."

Like Weber, Carter also conceded Sessions had some ground to make up in the next week, saying of McCarthy, "whoever is out first is ahead but that doesn't mean they are going to win."

Carter cited Sessions' role in 2010 helping Republicans win back the majority in the House. "There was no one positive and more aggressive than Pete."

Hillary Clinton weighs in on Cantor's defeat, GOP's future

Earlier: House conservatives have their own midterm message

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