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California's Kevin McCarthy a virtual lock for House majority leader

California's Kevin McCarthy appears to have locked up the votes to be House majority leader
Californian McCarthy seems poised to edge out Texas rival in bid to be House majority leader
Kevin McCarthy positioned to continue his rise through the ranks in Congress

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) is all but assured of becoming the next House majority leader after a lawmaker considered to be a strong conservative challenger declined Thursday to run in the internal GOP race.

The affable McCarthy, now the No. 3 Republican in the House, is by no means the top choice among tea party lawmakers who believe the current leadership is tied too closely to the party's establishment wing. But the path for his ascent to the No. 2 spot seemed to clear Thursday as the potential challenger, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, said he would not seek the post.

The leadership race was triggered by the defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in his primary in Virginia on Tuesday. Cantor announced Wednesday that he would step down from the majority leader's position at the end of July.

McCarthy will likely still face opposition from another Texan, Rep. Pete Sessions, but with Hensarling out, a potential regional showdown between the two largest state delegations in the House appears to be easing.

Sessions, a committee chairman and McCarthy rival, entered the race early, calling potential supporters on Tuesday night as Cantor was being defeated in his home-state election by a little-known conservative professor, Dave Brat.

It's also possible that another conservative could still enter the race, aides to House Republicans said, but McCarthy has moved quickly to lock down key votes.

Hensarling would have posed the most formidable challenge because of his stature among tea party lawmakers seeking to elevate one of their own.

In a statement Thursday morning, Hensarling said that after "prayerful reflection," he would not run for the post.

“Although I am humbled by the calls, emails, and conversations from my colleagues encouraging me to return to leadership for the remainder of the 113th Congress, I will not be a candidate for Majority Leader next week," he said.

"I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right office at the right time for me and my family."

After the decision was made, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former GOP vice presidential nominee who is influential among his conservative peers, said he would back McCarthy.

The election, which is by secret ballot, is set for next Thursday.

For more news on Congress and politics, follow me on Twitter @LisaMascaroninDC

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