Cantor Trounced In Historic Upset


As the Obama administration was trying to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in late 2010, Republican Rep. Eric Cantor met privately with Benjamin Netanyahu in a New York hotel room with an unprecedented offer:  the incoming majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives offered to side with the prime minister of Israel against the President of the United States on critical foreign policy issues.

Laura Rozen reported in Politico that a readout of the meeting provided by Cantor’s staff said, "Eric stressed that the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington," the readout continued. "He made clear that the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other."

It was no secret that Netanyahu and Obama clashed over these issues, but Cantor’s offer was unprecedented. With that kind of blank check and Netanyahu’s penchant for meddling in domestic American politics, it is easier to understand the Israeli leader’s confrontational approach to the administration’s policies.

Not all Republicans necessarily shared Netanyahu’s desire to see the peace talks or Iranian negotiations fail, but what they want most of all was for Obama to fail, regardless of the issues.  With a Jewish majority leader touted as a friend of the Israeli premier they had all the cover they needed.

Cantor’s surprise – and unprecedented – primary defeat Tuesday was also a defeat for Netanyahu, but unlike the Virginia congressman, he will recover.

Cantor was trounced 55-45 by economics professor David Brat. Cantor is expected to resign his post as House majority leader, according to published reports.

A Jewish Republican, Cantor was “never a perfect fit” for the increasingly “evangelical Tea Party oriented” voters of his Richmond area district, according to David Wasserman in Cook Political Report. Brat is a Roman Catholic with a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Cantor reportedly outspent his opponent 20-to-1, apparently spending nearly as much at steakhouses as his challenger did on his entire campaign.  But the incumbent’s biggest expenditure was also his biggest blunder: a million dollar ad blitz that transformed his unknown Tea Party challenger into a well-known giant killer.

Brat’s biggest issue against Cantor was his support for some form of immigration reform, which he branded "amnesty." Brat called Cantor "the number one cheerleader for amnesty in Congress." Cantor never backed comprehensive reform but even his support for limited reforms – a major GOP goal just 18 months ago — proved fatal to his career.

But it was more than immigration, according to the Rothenberg Political Report.  He was complacent, ran a poor campaign, was too focused on becoming the next Speaker, had ineffective constituent service and spent too little time in his district, the report said.

The highest-ranking Jew in Congressional history was considered a leading contender to be the first Jewish Speaker of the House, but that is not to be.  Under Virginia’s sore loser election provision, Cantor cannot run as an independent in November’s general election, according to Cook Political Report. It may be premature, but most politicos are already writing him off as a has-been. 

Cantor sought to be the Tea Party’s man in the House GOP leadership following the 2010 election but his solidly conservative credentials weren’t good enough to protect him from a challenge from the farther right.

Cantor’s primary defeat – the first for a majority leader of either party since the post was established in 1899 – was a victory for Speaker John Boehner, who was said to be suspicious that his number two was plotting his overthrow.  But Brat’s victory could strengthen the Tea Partiers who have been calling for Boehner’s removal.

Cantor’s loss emphasizes how poorly Jews are represented in the GOP and how out of step it is on so many issues from the Jewish community. Politico noted he was seen as the GOP's front man "for a conservative party that’s hostile to the values a strong majority of Jews share on issues from economic inequality to gay marriage to immigration."

Republican Jews are in mourning over Cantor's defeat, and even some Democrats.  ""I'm a big Democratic partisan, but even I think it's a loss for the Jews," said public relations maven Steve Rabinowitz.

Cantor may be the only Jewish Republican in House, but there are 33 Jewish Democrats in House and Senate. Several Jewish Republicans are running in this year’s congressional elections.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.