Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat this week in one constituency, Virginia’s 7th congressional district, triggered mourning among another: Republican Jews.
Since 2009, Cantor 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 June 10 when he was trounced in a major Republican primary upset in his Richmond-area district by a Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat.
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.”
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 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.”
Cantor was elected to Congress in 2000 when he was 37, after serving 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. “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.
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 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,” and formed a political action committee that championed younger conservatives in a GOP they said had become too moderate and complacent.
As majority leader, a post he will give up at the end of July, Cantor stayed to the right of his Ohio colleague, Rep. John Boehner, and many believed he would soon challenge Boehner to become the first Jewish House speaker.
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.
Hadar Susskind, 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 that although he disagreed with Cantor on many issues, the man’s defeat was a minus for the Jewish community.“It’s clear the community needs people like Eric Cantor,” he said.