Rep. Eric Cantor’s surprise loss in a primary election last week will leave Congress without a Republican Jewish member and pro-Israel organizations without one of their strongest advocates on Capitol Hill, but it will likely not diminish support for the Jewish community’s legislative agenda, political observers said this week.
However, Cantor’s loss has sparked a debate in parts of the Jewish community about Jewish Republicans’ role — and comfort level — in a party that is increasingly being influenced by the conservative Tea Party movement.
Observers, some of them with close ties to the GOP, told The Jewish Week that bipartisan congressional backing for Israel, and for such issues as opposition to anti-Semitism, will continue under other members of Congress after Cantor (R-Va.) leaves the House of Representatives at the end of the year. He has served seven terms, and risen to the rank of majority leader, the No. 2 Republican leadership position in the House.
The experts said the growing strength of the Tea Party movement, which favors an isolationist approach to foreign policy and largely opposes foreign aid, does not threaten continued U.S. financial support of Israel.
“There will be no change in the GOP’s support for Israel,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director for public policy. “Evangelical Christians — a key bloc in the Republican coalition — are thoroughly committed to Israel’s security and welfare.”
The experts said that Tea Party leaders — even one as prominent as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is considered a leading Republican contender for the Republicans’ 2016 presidential nomination — have reached out in recent months to the Jewish community and have spoken in positive terms about the U.S.-Israel alliance.
“Paul,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman-philanthropist who has served as an official of the Republican Jewish Coalition and is a major donor to Republican campaigns, “could not be more supportive of Israel.”
Paul’s position on Israel has “evolved,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He started off wanting to cut all foreign aid. Now he sees it as a long-term strategy. He wants to start scaling back to countries burning [American] flags in their streets.”
“You’re not talking about Taft isolationism,” Breger said, referring to the extreme isolationist views of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, who from 1939 to 1953 advocated strict “non-interventionism” overseas.
Some outside observers, however, disagree with such sanguine assessments.
“With respect to its foreign policy direction, it remains to be seen how the Republican Party will respond to the conservative pull that has been championed by the Tea Party supporters,” Gilbert N. Kahn, professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J., writes in this issue of The Jewish Week. (See analysis.)
“As the Tea Partyers move into leadership positions or threaten to do so, much of their isolationist ideology will also move into a more dominant position among elected Republican officials,” Kahn wrote. “The Tea Party already has demonstrated a clear isolationist tendency that ought to disturb American Jews, given its historical, nativist direction and tendency.”
And Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor, warned last week in a talk sponsored by The Jewish Week at Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue that “the Tea Party, at least as represented by someone like Rand Paul, is a worrisome development for the Republican Party.” Stephens said Paul’s positions “hark back” to Sen. Taft’s.
“When you start to listen to what Tea Party people have to say on a number of issues, it sounds an awful lot like what the progressive left has to say,” Stephens said. Both groups, he said, want the U.S. out of Syria, for instance.
Stephens sounded an ominous note regarding Israel should an isolationist foreign policy take hold in Washington. “We may be entering into a different kind of post-American world, that is to say a world in which the United States isn’t asserting itself as forcefully as it used to. … Israel has only known one international order. What happens when America renounces its responsibilities as the guarantor of international order? What happens to a small country like Israel? Who are its new allies?
“Israel,” Stephens continued, “has reflexively thought that when push comes to shove, America would be at its side, or have its back. … Israelis and those who care about Israel need to start thinking about the security arrangements Israel will have to make to survive in a new kind of post-American world where … Americans won’t want to die for Doha [Qatar’s capital] and they might not want to die for Tel Aviv, either.”
The discomfort that many Jews, including Republican Jews, have expressed about Paul is reminiscent of the feelings they had about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a strong proponent of Tea Party policies. When when she was chosen as Sen. John McCain’s presidential running mate in 2008, her choice was seen as harmful to his chances among Jewish voters.
Paul was part of a 2013 tour of Israel with a group of Christian Zionists, and he recently proposed legislation that would cut funding to the Palestinian Authority unless it recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.
“Our [Jewish community] access is not going away,” Zeidman said of Jewish post-Cantor lobbying efforts in Congress. “We haven’t had to rely only on Eric.”
“Substantively, there is no loss to Jewish interests,” said Marshall Breger, an expert on Republican politics who served in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. “You still have a strong neocon [neoconservative] element” in Congress. The neoconservative branch of the Republican Party, which includes many Jews, has traditionally been sympathetic towards Israel.
Congressional support for Israel “has nothing to do [only] with Cantor,” Breger said.
Following his loss to economics professor David Brat, who comes from the far-right Tea Party, Cantor announced that he will relinquish his post as the House’s majority leader next month.
Without Cantor, Republicans will lack a natural conduit to financial contributors in the Jewish community, the experts who spoke to The Jewish Week agreed. New Republic quoted a former GOP congressman as saying that Cantor’s Jewish background gave him “access to donors we didn’t have access to.”
While Republican candidates for office come from all Jewish denominations, the Orthodox community remains the party’s main source of support, the experts said. This is especially evident in such haredi areas as Borough Park, Brooklyn, and Lakewood, N.J., where conservative Orthodox Jews are in the majority, said David Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “There are pockets of the country where Jewish republicans predominate.”
Jewish Republicans, caught off guard by Cantor’s defeat, are not pessimistic about their party’s electoral future; they will continue to work for mainstream GOP candidates who do not represent the Tea Party, and they do not think anti-Semitism was a factor in the Cantor-Brat race, observers told The Jewish Week.
Cantor, who became the first majority leader to lose a primary race since the position was created in 1899, said he might run for public office again. “I want to … continue to promote and be a champion for the conservative cause,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “I do want to play a role in the public debate.”
In a previously scheduled Father’s Day weekend appearance at the Hampton Synagogue, Cantor credited his religious faith with giving him the strength to deal with his electoral defeat. He did not discuss politics.
“He spoke about how his Jewish values and his understanding of the Torah have given him the strength to cope with what was a shocking defeat and personal setback,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, spiritual leader of the Hampton Synagogue.
Cantor’s loss means that for the first time since 1959, there is not a Jewish Rerpublican member in the House. Israeli-based columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote last week that “Jewish Republican representation, as low as it was to begin with, is … continuing its decline.” But political experts contacted by The Jewish Week said Cantor’s loss does not indicate that Jewish involvement in the Republican Party — for decades far less than for Democrats — is on the wane, or that the party is less welcoming to Jews.
“I don’t believe Eric’s defeat will make those Jewish individuals inclined to run as GOP candidates less likely to do so,” the OU’s Diament said in an email interview. “If a person is committed to Republican positions on issues and wants to get into politics, they’re not going to do so as a Democrat.”
“The [Republican] party is as open to Jews today as it was two weeks ago,” Breger said. “It didn’t have anything to do with anti-Semitism,” said Zeidman.
Cantor’s unexpected defeat was caused, in part, by his Jewish identity — but not by growing anti-Semitism among Tea Party voters, according to Wasserman.
He called Cantor’s Judaism one of many dissonant cultural factors that increasingly separated the incumbent from the leanings of the mostly Christian, mostly very conservative electorate in Virginia’s redrawn 7th Congressional District.
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.” In recent years, Cantor drew criticism for his change regarding immigration policy, eventually saying he did not want to punish the children of parents who had come to this country without documentation.
Conservative voters tend to favor a stricter immigration policy.
Cantor “was culturally dissimilar,” his “very polished, buttoned-down style” and campaigning in “very swanky venues” a contrast to many voters’ less flamboyant, middle-class norms, Wasserman said. “His religion is one facet of that.” Christian candidates could use “Evangelical imagery to connect with the base.” Cantor, of course, could not. “It was something he was always aware of.”