Reading The Tea (Party) Leaves On Cantor


Eric Cantor’s defeat in the Republican primary last week to a challenger considered even more conservative than he is raises three major issues that have been discussed at length in the general press: the future of the Republican Party, the status of President Obama’s legislative for the balance of his term and the role of money in campaigns.

Clearly, the Republican establishment is in turmoil and the consequences of Cantor’s loss of his House leadership post suggest major unknowns for a party already under serious challenge from within by the Tea Partyers. The president’s prospects in passing any major legislation — such as immigration or tax reform — which were already in grave doubt, are dead now until probably 2017. In fact, one should assume that battle royals are likely looming over mere budget matters, appropriations or debt ceiling extensions. Finally, in terms of money, Cantor outspent his opponent approximately 25-to-1; and Dave Brat defeated Cantor by 11 percentage points, yet received minimal, outside, big money.

But Cantor’s defeat also has ramifications for U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S.-Israel relations in particular: the political predisposition of the more extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party and its possible effect on American Jews; and the effect of an ascendant Tea Party faction on public policy and national issues that concern and affect American Jews.

U.S. foreign policy is currently in disarray. The White House is under tremendous stress in the Middle East, in the Indian subcontinent and in central Europe. There are critical questions as to how Cantor’s defeat will influence GOP votes on full funding for foreign aid; extending new funds to anti-Assad opponents in Syria; future foreign assistance to Egypt; and expediting American withdrawal from Afghanistan. There may likely also be key congressional votes on Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives — or non-initiatives. Finally, Congress will be considering critical questions involving Ukraine, an Iran nuclear weapons understanding and increased U.S. military deployment in Europe. This is without even considering the immediate crisis exploding in Iraq.

With respect to its foreign policy direction, it remains to be seen how the Republican Party will respond to the conservative pull that has been championed by Tea Party supporters. As Tea Partyers move into leadership positions or threaten to do so, their isolationist ideology will likely move into a more dominant position in the GOP. The Tea Party already has demonstrated a clear isolationist tendency that ought to disturb American Jews, given its historical, nativist direction and tendency. Clearly, there is reason to consider how the level of concern for Israel among this rising faction will be balanced against a possible response to Iranian nuclear weapons on the one hand or a dramatic increase in oil prices at home; to say nothing of another U.S. involvement aboard.

Domestically, beyond the question of campaign spending and the now likely moribund immigration reform initiative, there is the question of the impact and consequence on the entire social agenda. Issues such as civil rights, civil liberties, abortion, health care, eldercare, etc., which affect many segments of the Jewish community, will be threatened by an increasingly assertive conservative force intent on budgetary reductions and reduced taxes.

One final strictly political issue, which ironically could greatly affect the national Republican Party, is that of political fundraising specifically within the Jewish community. As the only high-level elected Republican Jewish official in the country, Cantor had succeeded increasingly in making inroads among Jewish political givers, many of whom have been dissatisfied with the Democrats but ambivalent about the Republican Party. Cantor was able to pitch Jewish givers as a friend inside making them more secure in supporting Republicans, even contributing to his own leadership PAC. He already had been successful in opening up Jewish giving at a much higher level than previously. Cantor was outspoken in covering Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s back in Congress and had worked most effectively in courting young Republicans for the pro-Israel agenda.

All of this too may be lost as a result of the defeat of the single most prominent elected Republican Jewish leader, who was even considered likely to become the first Jewish speaker of the House. It will be interesting to watch how successfully the growing penetration of the Republican Party among American Jews will be sustained, particularly at the congressional level.

Gilbert N. Kahn ( is a professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J. He blogs at Kahntensions,