Francis "Frank" Underwood is an ambitious Democratic congressman from South Carolina and House Majority Whip. He helped ensure the election of President Garrett Walker in return for his own appointment as Secretary of State. Before Walker is sworn in, however,Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez tells Underwood that the president wants him to promote his agenda in Congress and will not honor their agreement. Furious at Walker's betrayal, Underwood and his wife, Claire, seek to exact revenge and ultimately gain power.
Underwood begins a highly intricate plan to disgrace his enemies and obtain a cabinet position, acquiring pawns he can manipulate in his power play. He uses his extramarital relationship with Zoe Barnes, a young political reporter, to leak damaging stories about his rivals in the House. Meanwhile, he blackmails Peter Russo, a troubled congressman from Pennsylvania, into helping him undermine Walker's pick for State, Senator Michael Kern, and eventually has him replaced with his own choice, Senator Catherine Durant. Underwood also uses Russo in a plot to end a teacher's strike and pass an education bill, which improves Underwood's standing with Walker.
Because the new Vice President is the former Governor of Pennsylvania, a special election is to be held for governor. Underwood helps Russo get clean and props up his candidacy, but intends to break his sobriety later and trigger his downfall shortly before the election. Shifting political fortunes force Underwood to enact his plan early, Underwood stages Russo's suicide after he threatens to go to the press with Underwood's actions. With the Pennsylvania special election in chaos, Underwood convinces the Vice President to step down and run for his old position of governor – leaving the vice presidency open to Underwood, as was his plan all along.
Walker appears to have other plans. Underwood ends up vetting a surprising choice for Vice President, billionaire Raymond Tusk. Tusk later reveals that in fact he is actually vetting Underwood for the position. Meanwhile, after Underwood brings their affair to an end, Zoe begins piecing together clues about Underwood's machinations. The season ends with Underwood being offered and accepting the nomination for Vice President.