In his quest to find a running mate in this historic election year, Sen. John McCain is apparently looking to one of the nation’s smallest minority groups: Jewish Republicans.
News that the presumptive GOP presidential contender is considering Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House, as his running mate has generated plenty of buzz and opened the possibility of a Jewish candidate on the national ticket for the second time in eight years.
“If it’s real, it’s a very big deal,” said Jeff Wiesenfeld, a Jewish Republican and investment manager from Long Island who served as Jewish liaison under former New York Gov. George Pataki.
McCain’s top Jewish advisor, Fred Zeidman, on Tuesday spoke enthusiastically about Cantor, 45, whom
he described as a friend, but did not say he was urging McCain to choose Cantor.
“I think the world of Eric; he’s a phenomenal guy,” said Zeidman, who said Cantor would be a guest at his Houston home this weekend. “He looks right for the part and I couldn’t be more excited.”
While the McCain campaign has not commented on Cantor, the Associated Press this week reported that he is providing background information for the vetting process.
“It’s not surprising that Sen. John McCain would recognize Rep. Eric Cantor’s appeal as a potential vice president,” reads a statement from the Republican Jewish Coalition. “On issues from taxes and energy to Israel’s security and the threat of Iran, Cantor has been a consistent and effective leader.”
Cantor declined to comment on the speculation at a press conference on Monday intended to critique the energy policies of Democratic contender Barack Obama.
A call to his office Tuesday was not returned.
Cantor, the chief minority whip and No. 4 ranking Republican in the House, has increasingly appeared with McCain in recent weeks, and the Web site calling for his nomination was set up in June, complete with an online petition and clips of Cantor’s news coverage.
But Cantor is just one of several names on the reputed “short list” for the No. 2 spot. Others include former Massachusetts governor and unsuccessful presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Charlie Crist of Florida.
Cantor has already engaged the Obama campaign bare-knucke style, accusing the candidate of derogatory comments based on an interview Obama had with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine.
“It is truly disappointing that Senator Obama called Israel a ‘constant wound,’ a constant sore and that it infects all of our foreign policy,” Cantor said recently. “These sort of words and characterizations are the words of a politician with a deep misunderstanding of the Middle East and an innate distrust of Israel.”
Goldberg wrote on a blog this week that the attack was “particularly stupid” since Obama had been talking about the Middle East conflict broadly and not about Israel in particular.
While Cantor would provide McCain’s ticket with geographic, religious and age balance, the choice also has its negatives. Though widely viewed as a rising star, he is far from a household name.
“I have not spoken to a single person at the national level who believes this is under serious consideration or believes he would be an appropriate nominee,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, who believes Cantor’s name was leaked by McCain supporters to counter speculation that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine could share the Democrat ticket with Obama.
The state’s 13 electoral votes have gone to the Republican candidate in the past four presidential races, but there are indications it is now in play.
“Obama got day after day of positive headlines for considering Tim Kaine,” said Sabato. “Maybe the McCain campaign decided to balance that and the best way to do it was to leak the name of somebody from the state. But even here in Virginia people would be saying ‘Eric who?’ ”
A prolific fundraiser who has raked in $10 million for McCain’s presidential run from the Jewish community and raised $30 million for House Republicans in 2006, Cantor might attract more Jewish donors to McCain’s ticket. But Sabato noted that, unlike Obama, the Republican candidate has agreed to restrict campaign spending to $85 million to qualify for public financing.
“You could steer some of [donor’s money] to the party for legal and accounting [purposes], but that’s a minor factor for the general election,” said Sabato.
Still, the prospect of a McCain/Cantor ticket has fueled aspirations among Jewish Republicans of record-high Jewish votes for McCain in a race where the Democrat carries an unusual amount of baggage because of his association with controversial pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright and concerns among many Jews about the depth of his support for Israel and a lack of foreign policy experience.
Wiesenfeld, an ex-Democrat, said his former party has “already had an erosion of Jewish support because of left-wing advisors and [Obama’s] naive view of world politics. When you compound that with a solid guy like Eric Cantor, you could actually move from 20-30 percent of the Jewish vote to something approaching double that.” A recent poll conducted by the J Street organization found that 32 percent of Jews surveyed support McCain; Obama garnered 62 percent, well below the 75 percent reached by both John Kerry and Al Gore. Ronald Reagan’s 40 percent of the Jewish vote is considered the high-water mark for Republican presidential candidates.
But the National Jewish Democratic Council was quick to throw cold water on the idea of Cantor’s widespread appeal among Jewish voters.
“Eric Cantor is out of touch with the Jewish community in terms of his values,” said Alexis Rice, deputy executive director of NJDC. “The American Jewish Committee’s 2007 poll found that only13 percent of Jews considered themselves [politically] conservative and only three percent extremely conservative. Cantor is against stem-cell research, against a woman’s right to choose and against the separation of church and state. … His civil rights record is disappointing.
“All these issues are very important to the Jewish community.”
Rice speculated that Cantor’s name had emerged out of concern by the Republicans that Virginia could swing to a blue state this year. “Virginia has gone from a Republican stronghold to a state that tends to elect Democrats,” she said.
Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.) said Cantor was unique in that he was “proud of being Jewish and also being a Southerner.” King said that when he attended a fundraiser with McCain at the Hamptons’ home of Revlon cosmetics mogul Ron Perelman last week and found Cantor there as a guest, “I may have been witnessing a historic moment.”
For months, the closeness of McCain with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who shared the 2000 Democrat ticket with Al Gore, suggested that the Connecticut senator was angling for a second shot at the vice presidency. This time it would be on the Republican ticket, after failing to gain traction in his presidential bid in 2004 and losing the Democratic nomination for Senate two years later.
But some see Cantor as a more natural choice because he is a younger, fresh face — and a lifelong Republican, whereas Lieberman was elected as an independent and still caucuses with the Democrats.
Like Lieberman, Cantor is an observant, affiliated Jew who is said to keep a kosher home. Born and raised in Richmond, he worked for his family’s business and in private practice after earning his law degree before running successfully for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1992. He met his wife, the former Diane Fine, while in graduate school at Columbia University, and they have three children.
In Congress he has been a strong supporter of Israel who has heavily scrutinized aid to the Palestinians.
One issue that may emerge in a campaign is Cantor’s link to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who raised $30,000 for Cantor.
Zeidman, who is in the process of formulating a Jewish outreach operation for McCain, said Cantor’s advantages include both youth and relative experience (although he’s two years younger than Obama, he has served in Congress four years longer) as well as his bona fides as a supporter of Israel. “He has never traded political expedience for his beliefs and on that topic, he looks good next to John McCain.”
Choosing his words carefully, Zeidman said “it’s hard not to root wholeheartedly for Eric Cantor, but you’ve got to sit back and say ‘what’s best for the compaign?’ Eric would represent our community so well and I certainly think he’s the kind of person who doesn’t alienate any potential voter.”
In the end, he said, McCain’s choice would turn on personal compatibility.
“I don’t know who he sits around and has beer with,” said Zeidman.