How Far Can Eric Cantor Rise?

It’s no secret that Eric Cantor wants to be the first Jewish speaker of the House. He is an impatient man on the move, and the only mystery is when he’ll go for it.

Will he try it before the end of the current term, hold off until the 113th Congress convenes in January 2013, assuming Republicans will still control the House, or wait until John Boehner steps down?

Friends and foes alike point to a quote by Cantor in his high school yearbook: "I want what I want when I want it."

Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the 112th Congress and, as majority leader, the highest ranking Jew in this or any other Congress.

Rahm Emanuel had wanted to be the first Jewish speaker but opted instead to be White House Chief of Staff and then mayor of Chicago.

But some say Cantor is aiming for something higher.

His name was mentioned in 2008 as a possible running mate for Sen. John McCain in 2008, but several press reports suggested that was leaked by Cantor’s office, not McCain’s, which may suggest some interest in national office on the part of the sixth-term Richmond, Virginia, congressman.

Cantor has positioned himself as a leader of the Tea Party wing of the House GOP, and if the party picks a more traditional conservative as its standard bearer next year, it may look for someone who will appeal to the hardline populist wing as an alternative to someone like Michele Bachmann. 

If Cantor is on the national ticket, how would Jewish voters nationally respond? There certainly would be a degree of pride, as happened when Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was put on the Democratic ticket in 2000, but Jews vote overwhelmingly Democrat anyway. And four years later when Lieberman tried to run for the Democratic nomination on his own, he failed to generate much Jewish enthusiasm. The novelty had worn off by then.

The GOP hopes to make Israel a wedge issue in next year’s election, accusing President Obama of being hostile to the Jewish state, and may see Cantor, Netanyahu’s friend, as a key to that strategy. But that approach is flawed. Cantor has been a leading proponent of Tea Party positions and that will repel, not attract Jewish voters. Polls show Israel is not a high priority – usually around 8th on their agenda – and the GOP has too much baggage that turns off Jewish voters, who in recent years have been voting 3:1 Democratic. What’s more, it has been tried before and failed every time.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said it is "realistic" for Cantor to want to be speaker but he "lacks the kind of charisma that is needed on the right or left to win the White House."

Some are surprised he chose not to run for the Senate seat being vacated next year by the retiring Jim Webb (D). Instead, former Sen. George Allen, who Webb defeated in 2006, will try again. Allen, it will be recalled, initially denied reports that his mother was born Jewish, even declaring his love of ham sandwiches, but later admitted she was.

Cantor, 48, rose quickly in the House; he moved into the leadership in his second term and by his sixth was the majority leader. Boehner, 61, represents the party’s old guard; Cantor is leader of the uncompromising hardliners typified by the tea partiers.

Cantor has a staunch defender in Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who called him "a modest, focused and unassuming man" with a "steely core" and cannot be intimidated. To Boteach, Cantor is "the dam holding back the torrent of spending that would deepen" the nation’s financial crisis.

Critics and even some colleagues, however, are not as enthusiastic. Many describe him as aggressive, opportunistic and ambitious. The Washington Post reported he spent more than $10,000 on speech coaching.

An energetic fundraiser, Cantor has reportedly raised and given to GOP candidates over $1 million and is expected to match that in the current election cycle. That kind of money buys a lot of loyalty.

With Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan largely out of the picture – he became toxic after being tagged as the man who wanted to "destroy Medicare and Social Security as we know it"– Cantor is the Democrats new favorite target for what party operatives call "his unflinching support of big corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the middle class."  

The problem with portraying Cantor as an uncompromising hardliner is while it may alienate Democrats it can have the opposite effect on Republicans if and when Cantor decides to challenge Boehner.  Or run for higher office.



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.