Jewish Republican Eric Cantor elected party whip

Political expert: Jewish voters are going to stay strongly tied to the Democratic party.

whip 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
whip 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON - Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor won his race to become the new minority whip Wednesday, becoming the second-ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives. While the House Republican leadership has been set, the party's own transition has just begun. Wednesday's moves shift the House delegation further to the right, with the elevation of conservatives such as Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives. The Republican Party as a whole is now debating whether it needs to consolidate its conservative base or reach out to moderates, and the outcome could determine if Jews other than Cantor feel comfortable in the Grand Old Party. In the face of staggering losses in the executive and legislative branches on Election Day, Republicans have already begun the external finger-pointing and internal reflection over what went wrong and how to fix it for next time. Political scientist Kenneth Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said the deep unpopularity of the current Republican president and the spiraling economic crisis caused the "extraordinary" GOP reversals. He described the debate in the party - where conservatives are arguing for a return to conservative principles and the moderates are arguing for more outreach - as likely turning off Jews. "The implications for that fight in terms of Jewish votes is that Jewish voters are going to stay strongly [tied] to the Democratic party," Goldstein said. He said a more moderate GOP could attract more Jews "at the margins," while "if they go more in the Sarah Palin-Mike Huckabee direction, even though they're both very strong supporters of Israel, Jews are very unlikely to gravitate toward Republicans." Goldstein called Israel a "threshold issue" that affected Jews' votes significantly only when a candidate failed to reach a basic comfort level. "Once they decide you're supportive of Israel, I don't think it matters if you're supportive of Israel or super-supportive of Israel," he said. By crossing that threshold, a candidate could appeal to Jews on other grounds - such as economic and social issues, and particularly with the latter, Jews felt more comfortable with the Democrats, he said. Another political expert, Ken Wald of the University of Florida, said that even if changing demographics and evolving social ideals made Republicans think it would be efficacious to move toward the middle, it would be hard for the party to rebuild on the basis of its moderate wing. He pointed out that most of its more moderate legislators had been kicked out of the Congress and that few held leadership positions in the party. The loss of veteran Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays this election, for instance, means there will be no Republican representatives from New England in the new Congress. "The Christian conservatives, of whom Sarah Palin is a symbol, are the [party's] single largest constituency," according to Wald. Jeff Ballabon, a Republican strategist working to bring Orthodox Jews like himself into the party, agreed that the conservative wing was the strongest part of the GOP and argued it needed to be strengthened for Republicans to return to the White House and a Congressional majority. He noted that failed presidential candidate John McCain soared in the polls after the Republican National Convention, when he chose Palin as his running mate. "What happened at the convention was that he introduced a conservative element to his campaign," said Ballabon, who added that he was excited by Palin more than McCain. Ballabon said that the needed "realignment" of the party toward its "core principles" wouldn't turn away the Jewish voters whom he believed were making a steady move toward the Republican Party, notwithstanding exit polls showing them backing Barack Obama by 78 percent, two points higher than Democrat John Kerry received in the 2004 presidential race. "I think we have all the moderate Republican Jews that we're going to get," Ballabon said, adding that "the general rule is that the attractiveness of a candidate to secular Jews is inversely proportional to the attractiveness of the candidate to religious Christians." Instead, Ballabon is looking to other groups of Jews - the Orthodox, and immigrant populations (perhaps secular, but not "old guard" Democrats, he explained) such as Russian, Syrian and Israeli Jews. These Jews, he argued, were less interested in identity politics, identified more with Republican economic and national security principles, and in some cases embraced the party's social agenda as well. But Wald said even Orthodox Jews were less affiliated with the Republican Party than strongly committed Evangelicals and Catholics. Also, they are a small, if growing, percentage of the Jewish community. He described them as "bothered by this Christian nationalization" growing in the Republican Party, and suggested they would be encouraged by what they saw across the aisle - where Democrats on Wednesday decided not to punish the hawkish Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman even though he endorsed McCain and campaigned against Obama. "The Democrats see this as a great opportunity to contrast their attitude with that of a more purest, church-like attitude," said Wald, who added that he doubted Republicans would have let an apostate senator keep his position as the Democrats decided to do. Democratic senators voted 42-13 to let Lieberman keep his prestigious Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairmanship Tuesday, relieving him of the chairmanship of a lower-profile Environment and Public Works Committee subcommittee. Though many on the left called for his removal, as did some of his fellow senators, Obama had let it be known that he wanted to keep Lieberman with the Democrats and not push him to join the Senate's Republican caucus. While Wald stressed the image it conveyed of the Democrats' "big tent" approach, Lieberman might lose some of his independence as a result. Though he caucuses with the Democrats, Lieberman is, in fact, officially an Independent after he lost his Democratic primary race in 2006 and won the general Senate election as an Independent. "They now have the chairmanship to hold over his head," Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf noted, though he also pointed to the additional vote Lieberman gives the Democrat senators in their effort to have a filibuster-proof 60-vote edge. "The left wing is going to say what it's going to say, but having control of the Senate is more important," Sheinkopf said. Former Republican Jewish Coalition member William Daroff said that if the Democrats did move to unite the party and govern from the center, that could give Republicans fewer openings. But Daroff, who now runs the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities, said that ultimately, how the Republicans positioned themselves had to do with Obama more than any party faction. "I don't think the Republican Party can focus on rebuilding itself until it sees what the president-elect is all about," he said.