WASHINGTON (JTA) — Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and the highest-ranking Jew in congressional history, lost his Republican primary in Virginia to a Tea Party challenger in a major upset.
Cantor, 51, who rode the Tea Party wave to majority leader after the 2010 elections, was trailing Dave Brat, 56 to 44 percent, with 87 percent of the vote counted on Tuesday evening. Cantor conceded after 8 p.m.
“I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight,” The Washington Post quoted Cantor as saying to supporters in his Richmond district. “It’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country. I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”
Brat, an economics professor, depicted Cantor as pivoting away from conservatism, most prominently in leaning toward some immigration reforms.
Cantor, while keeping an immigration reform package from reaching the House floor, has said that he favored some of its elements, including a path to citizenship for immigrants who arrived in the United States illegally as children. Brat accused Cantor of dithering and emphasized secure borders as his immigration policy.
Cantor’s meteoric rise made him the pride of politically conservative Jews.
After a career in the Virginia legislature, he was elected to the House in 2000 and was made chief deputy whip just two years later, before his 40th birthday.
A prodigious fundraiser, Cantor joined with two other young Republican conservatives, Reps. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Kevin McCarthy of California, ahead of the 2010 elections and formed the Young Guns political action committee, backing young challengers to a party establishment seen as soft in the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential win.
Cantor at first embraced the Tea Party wave, and carefully hewed to the right of the House speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), whom he reportedly hoped to challenge.
Cantor, who barely contained his dislike for President Obama, was a lead player in forcing Boehner to shut down the federal government in 2013. The shutdown was seen as disastrous for Republicans, and more recently Cantor began to steer center, notably in advancing an interventionist foreign policy and embracing aspects of immigration reform.
Cantor has said that his own background, as the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, informed some of his views.
Since 2009 he has been the only Republican Jewish member of Congress. He has delved into Jewish learning as he ascended to his party’s leadership, taking private lessons with rabbis.