Rep. Eric Cantor’s loss a Tea Party-backed challenger Tuesday night in a shocking Republican primary upset was caused, in part, by his Jewish identity, says a political observer.
The defeat is not a matter of growing anti-Semitism among the conservative voters who ended his 13-year tenure in the House of Representatives. Rather, Cantor’s Judaism was one of many dissonant cultural factors that increasingly separated him from the leanings of the gun-owing, mostly Christian, mostly very conservative electorate in Virginia’s redrawn 7th Congressional District, David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told The Jewish Week Wednesday morning.
Christian voters typically do not vote against a candidate who is Jewish if that candidate shares their values, but “if given their choice, they are more comfortable voting for someone like them,” Wasserman said. In other words, they tend to favor a fellow Christian, such as economics professor Dave Brat, who beat Cantor by 56-44 percent.
Cantor’s loss removes the last Jewish Republican from Congress.
The second-ranking House Republican, Cantor was considered by many to be the eventual successor of House Speaker John Boehner, and the upset is sending shockwaves through political and Jewish circles.
The primary results were “one of those incredible, evil twists of fate that just changed the potential course of history,” Matt Brooks, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, was quoted as saying by the politico.com website.
“For Jewish Republicans, Oy veh,” declared the politico.com, which wrote that “there’s no longer a point man to help organize trips to Israel for junior GOP lawmakers, as Cantor routinely did. Jewish nonprofits and advocacy groups have no other natural person in leadership to look to for a sympathetic ear … no other member can quite play the same role in promoting Jewish Republican congressional candidates.”
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for Public Policy, said in a written statement that Cantor is “a friend and … a critical partner for the advocacy work of the Orthodox Jewish community on issues ranging from Israel's security and the security of Jewish institutions in the United States, to religious liberty to educational reform and opportunity to defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.
Diament called Cantor a “model in the Congress of a ‘distinguished gentleman’ or, in Jewish parlance, a ‘mensch.’ He will be sorely missed.”
Cantor, who narrowly won his first race for the House in 2000 and did not face “credible opposition” in subsequent Republican primaries, always was “quite different,” from most of the area’s electorate, Wasserman told The Jewish Week. “He was never a perfect fit for this electorate” — part of “the base was never comfortable with him.”
“He was culturally dissimilar,” his “very polished, buttoned-down style” and campaigning in “very swanky venues” was a contrast to many voters’ less-flamboyant, middle-class norms. “His religion is one facet of that.” Christian candidates could use “Evangelical imagery to connect with the base,” Wasserman said. Cantor, of course, could not. “It was something he was always aware of.”
Cantor’s defeat is unlikely to affect the already slim, short-term prospects for potential Jewish GOP candidates for Congress. “I do not see a lot of Jewish Republicans on the horizon this year,” Wasserman said. And Cantor’s loss will not likely complicate Jewish organizations’ lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel and other issues on Capitol Hill. “There are a lot of people conservative Jews could count on in Congress,” he said.
And Cantor’s defeat does not spell the end of Jewish Republicans’ strength at the polls in some areas, Wasserman said, citing such haredi areas as Borough Park, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, N.J., where conservative Orthodox Jews are in the majority.
“There are pockets of the country where Jewish Republicans predominate,” Wasserman said.
But other analysts in the coming days are likely point to the nativist and isolationist strains in the Tea Party, which could make it difficult to attract Jewish voters to the GOP.