As Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner argues today, it’s a act of provocation for House GOP leaders to clear the field for Kevin McCarthy to ascend to Eric Cantor’s Majority Leader position without competition.

His defeat presents House Republicans with an opportunity to signal – ahead of the 2014 midterm elections – that they’re listening to conservatives. But by elevating McCarthy, who is next in line as whip, they’d be sending the opposite message – that they’re determined to crush conservatives.

Several groups placed McCarthy’s voting record well to the left of Cantor’s for 2013. The American Conservative Union rated McCarthy at 72 percent compared with 84 percent for Cantor; Heritage Action ratings place Cantor at 53 percent and McCarthy at 42 percent; and Club for Growth had Cantor at 68 percent and McCarthy at 53 percent. Moving away from conservative groups, the National Journal rated Cantor the 80th most conservative member of the House while McCarthy was 170th.

McCarthy voted for a Hurricane Sandy relief bill that included spending that was unrelated to providing emergency aid, fought for the farm and food stamp bill, fought reforms to the federal sugar program, and backed an extension of the corporate welfare agency known as the Export-Import Bank.

In January, he also supported a path to legal status for immigrants who entered this country illegally.

As Red State’s Erick Erickson pointed out, McCarthy even participated in a retreat for liberal Republicans at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, Fla. The event was hosted by the Republican Main Street Partnership, which is a group run by representative-turned-lobbyist Steve LaTourette aimed at defeating conservatives. The organization includes big labor unions among its donors.

McCarthy’s ascent might make more sense from leadership’s perspective if there were evidence that he was an effective as a whip. In reality, his vote-counting operation routinely miscalculated on votes during the debt ceiling impasse, “fiscal cliff” tax talks, and other key points.

As Klein knows, the reality is that none of this stuff matters to people inside and outside the House Republican Conference who value hierarchy, or to McCarthy, who probably thinks it’s not his fault that Cantor underestimated Dave Brat and didn’t tend to his district. With likely right-wing opponents to McCarthy pulling themselves out of the contest, what is John Boehner supposed to do? Draft a Tea Person to run for Majority Leader? Have some sort of public self-humiliation moment? Cry?

The thing is it’s a bit hard for House wingnuts to claim spoils from Cantor’s defeat when not one of them, so far as I know, endorsed Brat. It might be smarter for them to get behind McCarthy and then let him be in a position of having to placate them every single day. Keeping the Republican Establishment insecure and ever leaning right may be a surer path to influence than joining the House leadership.

More generally, as Brian Beutler notes today at TNR, the immediate consequences of Cantor’s loss aren’t necessarily very large: Will a NoVa House race really lead to upsets in upcoming statewide primaries in Kansas and Tennessee? Not likely. Has the House GOP agenda changed? Only if you had unrealistic expectations:

Cantor’s defeat probably didn’t imperil or kill any major bills. It may have sent them downriver in body bags, but they weren’t going to pass anyhow. That probably includes immigration reform—the one issue that supposedly (though not actually) did Cantor in. But the great irony in all this is that McCarthy hails from a California district with a large immigrant population and is much more favorably disposed toward comprehensive reform than Cantor was.

Looking way ahead to September, I suppose it’s possible that a cabal of disenchanted hardliners will decide to make something of all this by trying to shut down the government again. But unless it was part of an elaborate conspiracy to sacrifice GOP seats as a pretext for ousting John Boehner, it’d be an incredibly weird, delayed primal scream, and suggestive of a strange unfamiliarity with how Cantor’s exit changes the balance of power in Congress.

Historians may look back at Cantor’s defeat as a watershed. But it’s probably not going to affect life in Washington all that much in the short run.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.