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Cantor Sings the GOP Melody

September 30, 2010 By:
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U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (left) with candidate Pat Meehan

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) may be one of the so-called "Young Guns" -- a trio of House members some consider the future of the Republican Party -- but in one key respect, the 47-year-old stands alone.

For more than a year, he has been the sole Jewish Republican in Congress.
 
But the House minority whip expresses confidence that many Jewish voters are so disenfranchised with the Obama administration's handling of the economy and the Middle East that they will help push Republicans back into control of the House. His optimism comes despite the fact that Jews tend to vote Democrat.
 
With the rapid rise of the Tea Party, the continuing economic distress and the strong possibility that the Republicans will take control of Congress, Cantor is considered by some to be the man of the moment.
 
Cantor stood near House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as he unveiled a new Republican agenda last week focused on creating jobs and fiscal responsibility -- and then was a key figure promoting it to the media. He sounds a similar note to Barack Obama's focus on hope and change during his 2008 presidential campaign, even as he promotes a very different agenda.
 
"If we are lucky enough to assume the majority, obviously, we can make it so that we can bring to the table ideas that can help turn this country around and give people hope again," Cantor said during a Sept. 21 interview at the offices of the Jewish Exponent.
 
Earlier that day, Cantor attended two private fundraising events in Center City with largely Jewish crowds: One for himself and one on behalf of congressional candidate Pat Meehan, who is running against Bryan Lentz for the congressional seat being vacated by Joe Sestak.
 
Afterwards, he stopped by the Exponent offices amid unusually tight security. Back in March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested and charged a Philadelphia man, Norman Leboon, with threatening to kill Cantor.
 
Since 2004, Cantor has been hosted for fundraisers by a loose network of Philadelphia-area pro-Israel activists, including communal leaders Marc Felgoise and Gary Erlbaum. The group primarily supports incumbents deemed pro-Israel, including a number of local and national Democrats.
 
Since first being elected 10 years ago, Cantor's rise in the GOP has been rapid: Two years ago, he was mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running mate for John McCain. And he is widely expected to become majority leader if Republicans win the House.
 
He is the co-author, along with U.S. Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and U.S. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), of a new book called Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders. The treatise calls for a curtailing of government spending, a reduction in income and corporate taxes, and a repeal of the health care legislation; it also devotes some space to critiquing Obama's handling of the Mideast.
 
Though he's not emphasizing social issues at the moment, Cantor remains a staunch opponent of gay marriage and abortion, and writes in his book that the role of religion in public life has been eroded. "In Virginia, we reject intolerance and respect religious liberty," he wrote. "But these days, Washington is engaged in an assault on religion in the public square."
 
In the interview, the native of Richmond, Va., spoke of his commitment to Judaism. He said he keeps a kosher home, studies Torah on a weekly basis, and is guided in public life by his faith.
 
"I've always been a minority. I'm a minority in the minority," he said, adding that his "faith governs everything I do."
 
"It is who I am. As a people, we are dedicated to tikkun olam, we are dedicated to the 613 mitzvot, and you do the best you can."
 
The five-term lawmaker expressed deep skepticism over the latest round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
 
"I'm concerned about the way that this all came about. I'm concerned about the pressure that the White House put on our ally Israel," he said, adding that not enough attention has been devoted to the Iranian threat.
 
Cantor said that the United States needs to enact even stricter sanctions on Iran to induce either a substantial policy change in the regime or bring about regime change.
 
He acknowledged that the GOP's focus on cutting spending and deficit reduction -- reinvigorated by the Tea Party -- posed a challenge to continued foreign aid to Israel.
 
"The problem is the $3 billion that goes to Israel is packaged together with $18 billion-plus to countries and causes that most Americans would question," said Cantor. He suggested that he and others might need to find a way to fund Israel's defense needs -- which now comprises the bulk of U.S. aid to Israel -- separate from the broader foreign-aid bill. But he declined to give details.
 
It remains far from clear if Cantor would be able to grow the party's Jewish base, especially since he's considered to be part of the more conservative wing of the GOP. In 2008, an estimated 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama. For his part, Felgoise said that he is supporting Cantor, and urged others to do so, because of the Virginian's strong backing of the Jewish state. On that issue, Felgoise said, "there is no one who is more of a 'go-to' guy as a Republican in Congress than Eric Cantor."
 
Another attendee at the Cantor fundraiser was pro-Israel activist David Edman, a former regional AIPAC chair. He wasn't shy about saying that he wished there were more Jews like Cantor in Congress and more Jews pulling for the GOP in the voting booth.
 
"It's scary that there are so many Jews who still don't get it -- that Israel, America and the Jewish people are threatened today. Cantor gets it," said Edman.
 
Thirty years ago, Betsy Sheerr -- who, like Erlbaum, sits on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Exponent -- helped found a pro-Israel political-action committee after a number of Democratic lawmakers were defeated as part of the Reagan revolution.
 
The Joint Action Committee on Political Affairs, or JACPAC, is still a nationally active group that supports candidates that are both ardently pro-Israel and, on the domestic front, pro-choice.
 
As a Democratic activist, she said she doesn't endorse the approach of basing financial support for a politician on a single issue, even one as vital as Israel.
 
"It's gratifying to see a young Jewish lawmaker in a position of rising power," she said of Cantor. But, she added, "I find that outside of his pro-Israel credentials, that he is way too right wing for me on domestic issues. He's really the Jewish equivalent of Newt Gingrich."
 
Erlbaum, for one, said that characterization is off the mark.
 
"He's a centrist Republican," said Erlbaum. "He's an amazing human being. The more people you have like Cantor in Congress," he added, the better it will be for the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

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