WASHINGTON (JTA) – The only Jewish GOPer in the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to become its second-highest ranking Republican.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is likely to ascend to the minority whip position in the House after another GOP lawmaker, Roy Blunt of Missouri, stepped down from the post on Nov. 6.
Cantor, 45, has served as chief deputy whip for the past six years and been considered a rising star in the Republican Party pretty much since his election to the House in 2000.
As someone who could appeal to two key constituencies — Jews and conservatives — Cantor’s name was even floated this summer as a possible vice-presidential pick for John McCain, although it doesn’t appear as if he were seriously considered for the position. He also played a key role in negotiations over an economic bailout bill earlier this fall, offering conservative alternatives to the package originally proposed by the Bush administration.
Representing a district that includes parts of Richmond and its suburbs as well as rural areas to the north, Cantor’s political philosophy is one of a traditional Republican conservative on both economic and social issues. Newsweek described the “Cantor Brand” this week as an emphasis on "fiscal discipline, lowering taxes and government accountability." He also is pro-gun and anti-abortion, and has backed Bush administration secrecy policies.
Such views have led Jewish Democrats to argue that while he may be Jewish, his views are “out of step” with the mainstream of the community, at least on domestic matters.
On Middle East-related issues, Cantor has been on the front lines for his party in advocating for the Jewish state and charging Democrats with being insufficiently committed to Israel. On the latter point, he’s been accused of distorting Democratic positions.
As an example, in May he released a statement misquoting Barack Obama as saying Israel was a “constant sore” in the Middle East. In fact, Obama was speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the Jewish state. Cantor never corrected the statement.
Cantor has been an effective representative of Jewish concerns to the Republican caucus. William Daroff, the vice president for public policy of the United Jewish Communities and the head of the group’s Washington office, credited Cantor with helping to stave off efforts this summer to limit tax exemptions for nonprofits.
Blunt stressed the importance of Cantor’s religion in a July interview.
“The fact that Eric’s the only Jewish Republican member of the House creates an entry into the community,” said the outgoing whip.
Cantor also played a key role in convincing his former Republican colleagues in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he served eight years, to back Iran divestment legislation.
“Eric was involved quietly trying to persuade people,” said Ron Halber, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
Cantor was raised as a Conservative Jew, and in a 2001 interview with The Washington Jewish Week said he does his best to keep kosher. He said avoiding non-kosher meat can be complicated as a politician when he attends an event and his hosts want him to try their barbecue, but they usually understand. Cantor has strong roots in the Richmond Jewish community, having co-chaired the federation’s young leadership division and served on the Richmond Jewish Community Center board.
Known and lauded in his party for his prodigious fund-raising skills, Cantor did run into problems from a fund-raiser he held at a kosher deli in 2003. His campaign didn’t pay the bill for the event at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s delicatessen, Stacks, but when the problem became public, Cantor apologized, paid the bill and was not sanctioned.
Cantor also received $30,000 in campaign contributions from entities affiliated with Abramoff. After the lobbyist pleaded guilty to fraud and corruption charges, Cantor donated $10,000 of the money to charity.