When Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) takes over as House majority leader this week in the new, divided Congress, he will become the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in history.
And he will still be the lone Jewish Republican in either house, a status that was ensured last month when GOP challenger Randy Altschuler conceded to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-L.I.) in one of the closest races in November’s congressional midterms.
Which raises this question: why, if Jews are slowly edging away from their traditional loyalty to the Democrats, haven’t the ranks of Jewish GOP lawmakers started to swell? A number of polls in 2010 revealed significant increases in independent and Republican identification among Jewish voters and a weakening of Jewish Democratic affiliation.
In general, Democrats argue the lack of Jewish Republicans in Congress is because the Republican Party is still inhospitable to Jews — an argument that has lost a lot of credibility in the wake of Cantor’s meteoric rise through the GOP leadership.
Republicans tend to argue that it’s the inevitable result of the fact that it takes time for up-and-coming politicians to work their way up the political hierarchy to the point where they are possible candidates for national office, and that the Jewish community still places a certain stigma on Jews running as Republicans.
“There’s a natural lag,” said GOP political consultant Lee Cowen. “It’s relatively easy for Jews in statistically significant numbers to go into the privacy of the voting booth and vote their conscience. It’s a whole different thing to put your name out there and endure the public scrutiny of your own Jewish community.”
Political scientists point to other factors, including ideological changes within the GOP and the nature of the Jewish Republican constituency.
The still-yawning Jewish partisan gap will be just one feature of the 112th Congress, which convenes this week with the GOP in firm control of the House but the Democrats holding on to a slim majority in the Senate — and President Barack Obama still holding a veto pen.
Cantor will play a major role in mobilizing the new GOP House majority behind an ambitious domestic agenda that will include sweeping spending cuts and efforts to roll back portions of last year’s Democratic health care reform package.
All of that will take place against the backdrop of an insurgent Tea Party movement that is already expressing discontent with a GOP congressional establishment that it sees as unwilling to take on the Washington establishment.
On the other side will be a beleaguered Democratic caucus that includes a number of Jewish lawmakers clustered heavily on the liberal end of the spectrum.
Jewish groups, by and large, will hold fast to their traditional legislative agendas, but with some tactical adjustments to meet the new Capitol Hill landscape.
“We will be looking for issues where there is some possibility of bipartisan cooperation,” said Josh Protas, vice president and Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “That includes reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Older Americans Act. There will be a big push to restore cuts to the Food Stamp program; that’s an immediate priority.”
After meeting with staffers for incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), “we got a very strong sense that smaller, more focused pieces of legislation are more likely to pass than sweeping bills,” Protas said.
JCPA and other Jewish groups will continue to press for environmental legislation, but the emphasis is likely to shift from efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions to energy independence in a reflection of the pragmatic politics of the day, he said.
Barbara Weinstein, legislative director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said “protecting health care reform” will be a top priority for the progressive Jewish group, along with restoring food stamp funding cut during the last Congress.
The RAC will continue to push for big-ticket measures GOP leaders strongly oppose, including the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and comprehensive immigration reform.
“Our goals don’t change depending on who’s running the show,” she said, “but tactics have to be adjusted.”
With the Jewish federation system at the forefront, a broad spectrum of Jewish groups is already lobbying hard to avert big cuts to critical health and human service programs — everything from Medicare and Medicaid to subsidized housing for seniors.
Orthodox groups will also play a lot of defense in the coming months as they monitor congressional budget cutters, said Orthodox Union public policy director Nathan Diament.
“The impulse in our community will be to oppose all cuts, but that’s not a viable strategy,” he said. “We will be part of a conversation to push people to think smartly about which cuts will have the most impact.”
An early priority for the OU will be ensuring continuation of homeland security grants for Jewish and other religious groups, “which are currently up in the air because the appropriations for the current fiscal year were not completed,” he said.
While that money enjoys bipartisan support, Diament said his group is worried about the “environment of budget cutting and partisan gridlock.”
That same budget deadlock has tied up additional funds requested by the Obama administration for Israeli missile defense programs.
Orthodox groups could benefit from the Republican focus on using the tax code to spur charitable giving to nonprofit and religious groups that provide health and social services, Diament said, and on education tax credits.
While the partisan makeup of Congress has changed dramatically, its Jewish demographics remain basically the same. At least one prominent Jewish Republican says it doesn’t really matter that Eric Cantor remains the only Jewish Republican on the Hill.
“I think the question misses the point,” said Adam Hasner, a former majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives who is regularly mentioned as a possible contender for a U.S. Senate seat in 2012. “Eric Cantor can definitely use some Jewish Republican company in Washington, but the success of the movement can’t simply be measured by the number of Jewish Republicans serving in Congress.
“What is most important,” Hasner continued, “[is] electing representatives who have a shared view of the world on issues like the economy, taxes, spending, national security and Israel. Jewish Republicans were very successful this year in accomplishing that goal in states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, agrees. Brooks said there is a natural lag as Jewish voters become more comfortable with the GOP and more involved in party politics at the local and state levels, and as his organization works to groom new Jewish candidates around the country – some of whom he expects to eventually work their way up to higher office.
“Sure, I’d like to see more Jewish Republicans in the House and Senate, but I’m very happy with the candidates we have supported who have been winning important statewide offices,” he said.
Independent political scientists paint a more complicated picture.
University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald, director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies, said political demography is a big part of the reason for Cantor’s lonely status.
“Most Jews live in areas where the GOP is weak and thus don’t have many ‘safe’ seats to compete for,” he said. “They can get nominations, but little chance of election — the same as for African-American Republicans.”
Some Jews are elected in districts and states with small Jewish populations — Cantor is the most striking example — but historically, most Jewish members of Congress come from Jewish population centers.
Also, with relatively few Jewish Republicans holding high office, “aspiring Jewish Republicans lack role models and don’t have much in the way of networks to help them get integrated with party notables,” Wald said.
Ira Forman, former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and co-author of the book “Jews in American Politics,” said another factor is that “the Jewish Republican base is, more and more, in the Orthodox community.”
That faction is increasingly active in politics but “still not a community that runs very much for public office,” he said.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said a major factor is the widely reported demise of the Republican moderate faction and the party’s tilt toward the conservative side of the political spectrum.
“When the Republican party included more moderates, there were more Jews in Congress; that was the era of Arlen Specter and Jacob Javits,” he said. “The demise of GOP moderates is a big part of the party’s problems electing Jewish Republicans to Congress — just as it is part of their problem in attracting many more Jewish voters.”
In a farewell address last month, Specter, who served much of his 30 years in the Senate as a Republican but switched parties in 2009 only to lose a Democratic primary challenge in 2010, lamented the demise of the party’s moderate wing in Congress, saying that today “the moderates could fit into a telephone booth.”
Lee Cowen, the Republican political consultant in Maryland, said, “In many areas where there are large Jewish communities, there’s still a stigma in being a Jewish Republican. What I’ve seen is that Jewish Republicans are made to feel as if they’re not part of the community. It baffles me why the Jewish community, which is one of the most tolerant of differences, isn’t tolerant when it comes to politics.”
That stigma, he said, ultimately damages Jewish political influence.
“We, as a community, run the risk of being marginalized if we’re always in lockstep with one party,” he said.
He pointed to recent polls showing stronger support for Israel among Republicans than Democrats. “That might not be happening if the Democrats had to really compete for our votes,” he said.