With Rep. Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat, Congress loses its only Republican Jewish lawmaker and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history.
WASHINGTON — Eric Cantor’s defeat in one constituency, Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, triggered mourning among another: Republican Jews.
Since 2009, Rep. Cantor (R-Va.) has been the only Jewish Republican in Congress. After the 2010 GOP takeover of the House, he became the majority leader. He is the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in congressional history.
But the meteoric rise of Cantor, 51, came to a screeching halt on Tuesday when he was trounced in a major Republican primary upset in his Richmond-area district by a poorly financed Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, an economics professor.
“Obviously we came up short,” Cantor told his stunned followers in a Richmond hotel ballroom. “Serving as the 7th District congressman and having the privilege of being majority leader has been one of the highest honors of my life.”
The defeat, with Brat garnering 55 percent of the vote to 44 percent for the incumbent, was a shock to Cantor and especially to Republican Jews for whom Cantor was a standard-bearer.
“We’re all processing it,” said Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He was an invaluable leader, he was so integral to the promotion of, to congressional support of the pro-Israel agenda. It is a colossal defeat not just for Republicans but for the entire Jewish community.”
Locally, Scott Feigelstein, regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, had a slightly different take. He said Cantor’s position as the lone Jewish Republican lawmaker in Congress had symbolic value but “we don’t do ethnic or religious headcounts. We look at people who share our values or concerns,” which Cantor did.
“Support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is not contingent on one individual," Feigelstein added. "We have many non-Jewish friends who are very supportive of that relationship and we’re very fortunate in that regard.”
Cantor also was a natural ally for socially conservative Orthodox Jews who at times have been at odds with the Obama administration on religion-state issues.
In a statement, Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Orthodox Union, called Cantor a friend who has "been a critical partner for the advocacy work of the Orthodox Jewish community on issues ranging from Israel’s security and the security of Jewish institutions in the United States, to religious liberty to educational reform, and opportunity to defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.”
“It’s an embarrassment to the Republican Party to have one of its own leaders not survive the primary,” said Jerry Stern, an asset manager who had spoken with Cantor at a Republic Jewish Coalition event a few years ago in Merion.
He was on the way back from a trip to Harrisburg sponsored by the Orthodox Union to lobby for state education tax credit programs that benefit Jewish day schools and are at risk of being cut as the state tries to solve its budget crisis.
Cantor “doesn’t have an issue with government aid for private schools, provided it's constitutional,” said Stern, a board member of Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion. “He’s more sympathetic of those issues that are important to the Orthodox Jewish community.”
Cantor was elected to Congress in 2000, at the age of 37, after having served nine years in the Virginia legislature. From the start he made clear that he had three bedrocks: his faith, his state and his conservatism.
His first floor speech, on Jan. 31 2001, was in favor of making the Capitol Rotunda available for Holocaust commemoration, and in two minutes Cantor wove together the importance of Holocaust education — a nod to two Virginia founding fathers and an embrace of the foreign policy interventionism that would guide the George W. Bush administration.
“The remembrance of this dark chapter in human history serves as a reminder of what can happen when the fundamental tenets of democracy are discarded by dictatorial regimes,” a hesitant and nervous Cantor said.
“While we in the United States, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, have experienced years of peace and prosperity, we must not forget that genocide and human rights abuses continue to occur elsewhere around the world,” he said. “As the leader of the free world, the United States must use its power and influence to bring stability to the world and educate people around the globe about the horrors of the Holocaust to ensure that it must never happen again.”
Cantor’s popularity in his district, his ability to garner supporters in the Republican caucus and his fundraising prowess soon caught the eye of Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who in 2003 was set to become House majority whip. Blunt named Cantor his chief deputy, a stunning rise for a congressional sophomore who had not yet reached 40.
Cantor’s Jewish involvement deepened as his days grew busier. Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, he started to keep kosher and take private classes with Orthodox rabbis. His three children with wife Diana, whom he met at Columbia University, were active in Jewish youth movements.
Confidants say his commitment to Israel intensified after a cousin, Daniel Cantor Wulz, was killed in a 2006 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
For Jewish leaders, Cantor was a critical address within the Republican Party for the Jewish community’s domestic agenda, said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“When there was a need for a heavy lift for much of our Jewish federation agenda, we could count on being able to call Eric and have him help us get to the finish line,” Daroff said.
Cantor at first seemed to be riding the Tea Party wave. During the 2010 midterm elections, he joined with Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, calling themselves the Republican Party’s “Young Guns” in setting up a political action committee that championed younger conservatives in a GOP that they said had become too moderate and complacent.
In a book co-written by the three at the time, Cantor welcomed the Tea Party wave.
“They saw that the powers in charge here are ignorant of what the people want and frankly arrogant about it,” Cantor said in the book, referring to the protests against President Obama’s health care plan that had sparked the Tea Party movement.
In the book, he again rooted his conservatism in the South and in his faith.
“I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent and Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their ‘G’s,” referring to his colleagues.
At the time, Cantor seemed to think he could harness the Tea Party insurgency.
“Tea Party individuals are focused on three things: One, limited, constitutional government; two, cutting spending, and three, a return to free markets,” he told JTA in an October 2010 interview on the eve of the midterm elections. “Most Americans are about that, and the American Jewish community is like that.”
As majority leader, Cantor stayed to the right of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and many believed he would soon challenge Boehner to become the first Jewish House speaker.
Cantor and Obama have not had a good relationship — Cantor has not attended a single Jewish event at the White House during Obama’s two terms, although he has been invited to all of them.
Until two weeks into the October 2013 shutdown of the federal government, Cantor resisted agreeing to a deal, and he conceded only when it became clear that the shutdown was damaging Republican electoral prospects.
Heeding a Republican establishment that believed the Tea Party had gotten out of hand, Cantor more recently tilted toward the center, championing job creation programs, criticizing foreign policy isolationists within the GOP and expressing a willingness to consider elements of the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill, although until now he has resisted bringing it to the House floor.
That tilt and, according to some local news reports, a perception that Cantor was not sufficiently invested in his district helped contribute to his defeat. Brat especially focused on criticizing Cantor’s tentative embrace of a path to citizenship to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors.
Locally, Elliot Holtz, a Foundation for Jewish Day Schools board member who attended college with Cantor at George Washington University, said his defeat exemplified the truism that “all politics is local.”
“I think it’s a lesson in paying attention to your own community, to your constituents, to who put you in your job. It’s not just about national positions,” said Holtz, who also attended the day of lobbying in Harrisburg.
Hadar Susskind, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that is a leader on immigration reform, said it was bizarre to accuse Cantor of being overly accommodating on immigration.
“He has been the single largest obstruction in the effort to reform our immigration laws, so those efforts lose nothing with his defeat,” Susskind said.
Democrats immediately seized on Cantor’s loss as evidence that the Republican Party is becoming increasingly extreme.
“When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can't earn the Republican nomination, it's clear the GOP has redefined 'far right,’ ” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.
Steve Rabinowitz, a publicist who represents Jewish groups as well as liberal and Democratic causes, said he was conflicted about Cantor’s departure. On the one hand, he couldn’t help but be amused that Cantor’s flirtation with the Tea Party came back to haunt him. On the other, Rabinowitz suggested that Cantor’s defeat was a minus for the Jewish community.
“Wearing my mainstream Jewish skullcap, it's clear the community needs people like Eric Cantor,” Rabinowitz said. “This is a loss for the Jewish community. I have my disagreements with him, but he’s been there for the community.”
Jewish Exponent staff writer Eric Berger contributed to this report.