Washington watch: Cantor’s revealing defeat

Cantor was proud of his Jewish faith and was on track to be the first Jewish Speaker of the House in history.

Eric Cantor (photo credit: REUTERS)
Eric Cantor
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Rep. Eric Cantor’s unprecedented defeat in last week’s GOP primary may be a greater loss for the Likud than for the Republican Party.
The Virginia congressman has been one of the most hawkish members of the House when it comes to Israel and – following the lead of the Netanyahu government – is on a mission to block the peace policies of the Obama administration. He guided colleagues on his side of the aisle in that direction through orientation trips to Israel for new members and introductions to wealthy Jewish contributors.
Hardliners were impressed with his tough positions on dealing with peace and the Palestinians, but he often seemed to shoot from the lip without thinking through the implications of some stands he took on Middle East policy.
Some of that no doubt was motivated by his intense antipathy to President Barack Obama, but that is not to suggest his support for Israel was insincere. Being pro-Israel is open to a range of interpretations, and it would not be inaccurate to describe him as an ardent Likudnik.
As the Obama administration sought to resuscitate Israeli- Palestinian peace talks in late 2010, Cantor met privately with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in a New York hotel room with an unprecedented offer: the incoming majority leader of the US House of Representatives offered to side with the prime minister of Israel against the president of the United States on critical foreign policy issues.
Cantor’s offer was reported by Laura Rozen in Politico. A readout of the meeting provided her by Cantor’s staff stated: “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. 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.”
Netanyahu and Obama had openly clashed over these issues, but Cantor’s offer was unprecedented. With that kind of partisan support by the Republican House leader 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 share Netanyahu’s desire to see the peace talks or Iranian negotiations fail – what they really want is 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 also enjoyed a close relationship with casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, an influential Netanyahu ally who spent upwards of $100 million to defeat Obama and Democrats in 2012 and reportedly intends to continue his generous backing for Republicans.
Cantor’s surprise – and unprecedented – primary defeat was also a defeat for Netanyahu, but unlike the Virginia congressman, the prime minister will recover.
Cantor was trounced 55-45 by economics professor David Brat.
The lone Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill, 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, a Roman Catholic with a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, stressed his Christian faith as he campaigned in the newly redrawn and more rural 7th District. Cantor’s loss wasn’t due to anti-Semitism, most observers agreed, but to more conservative, pro-Christian and evangelical voters.
That was only a part of Cantor’s problem. You can’t dial in an election when people don’t like you. While Brat was showing up at polling places on election morning, Cantor was at a Starbucks on Capitol Hill courting lobbyists and contributors.
He’d forgotten the wisdom of Tip O’Neill: All politics is local. You can be a big macher in Washington and appear on all the Sunday morning talk shows, but if your voters only see you on television, you’re in deep trouble.
Brat portrayed himself as the down-home guy while Cantor was perceived as that Washington big shot who dropped by once in a while in a chauffeured official SUV with a security entourage. And when he did show up, he’d spend more time talking than listening.
Cantor was not only out of touch but apparently so were his staff and his pollsters. Most telling perhaps was that he spent more money on steakhouse dinners than Brat did on his entire campaign. A million-dollar media blitz to smash his unknown opponent backfired, transforming Brat into a household name and a giant killer.
Cantor 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, according to The Rothenberg Political Report. His unbridled ambition and confrontational style also irritated colleagues.
Cantor was proud of his Jewish faith and was on track to be the first Jewish Speaker of the House in history, but if he was out of touch with so many of his conservative constituents he was also out of touch with most American Jewish voters, who typically vote 70:30 Democrat.
Politico noted he’d been 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.”
Cantor’s loss to a tea party extremist will almost certainly make it harder for Republicans to appeal to Jewish voters; it also spotlights how poorly Jews are represented in the GOP and how out of step the party is on so many issues important to most Jewish voters.
Cantor’s defeat will not change the GOP’s support for Israel; there will be many seeking to take his place. And you don’t have to be Jewish to lead congressional delegations to Israel for new lawmakers; Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), a Baptist, has been doing it for many years with great success.
Cantor may be the only Jewish Republican in the 113th Congress, but there are still 32 Jewish Democrats and one Independent. Several Jewish Republicans are running in this year’s congressional elections. But for now, at least, Cantor retains his lonely status – and come net year, there may be no Jewish Republicans, badly undercutting claims by conservatives that Jews are turning away from the Democrats in droves.

©2014 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com