House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who lost his Republican congressional primary to Tea Party-backed Dave Brat in a shocking landslide Tuesday, is the highest-ranking Jew in the history of the U.S. Congress. As news of Cantor’s defeat spread, Jews on both sides of the aisle wrestled with what his defeat meant for American Jews in politics–and for Republican Jews in particular, who had long seen Cantor as a champion for their cause.
“We are disappointed that our friend Eric Cantor lost his primary race tonight, but we are proud of his many, many accomplishments in Congress,” said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks in a somewhat grim press statement Tuesday evening. “Eric has been an important pro-Israel voice in the House and a leader on security issues…We are proud to have worked with Eric Cantor for the last 14 years.”
Indeed, Cantor and his wife were prominent guests of honor at RJC events–not just high-dollar leadership meetings, but also at local chapters across the country. In 2010, hundreds of Jewish Republicans packed a standing-room-only ballroom in suburban Chicago to hear Cantor speak in the run-up to the midterm elections that year, which swept Cantor and his party into power in the House of Representatives on a wave of Tea Party support.
Though Cantor has never made his religious identity as central to his persona as did former Democrat Sen. Joseph Lieberman–another prominent Jewish politician defeated by his own party in a midterm primary–he was proud to identify as a Jew. He promoted Jewish political candidates, such as Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, and referred to his Judaism in explaining some of his positions, including his support for immigration reform.
It was that push for immigration reform, despite of a deeply flawed “comprehensive” bill in the Senate and a growing crisis at the border, that cost Cantor his seat to Brat’s “anti-amnesty” campaign.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee gloated over Cantor’s defeat “by the Tea Party base that he’s kowtowed to at every turn,” and some Democrats claimed that the Tea Party had rejected Cantor because of his Judaism.
It is a claim undermined by the fact that Cantor helped inspire the Tea Party’s birth in 2009 by whipping the Republican minority against the $862 billion stimulus, and by the fact that some Tea Party conservatives had supported him as an alternative to Speaker of the House John Boehner in January 2013. At least one of Cantor’s most prominent critics, talk radio host Mark Levin, is Jewish–and enthusiastically backed Brat’s campaign.
On social media, some Tea Party-aligned Jews were exultant at Cantor’s defeat: “Just so everyone knows …. I am Jewish …. and I am more than tickled pink that Cantor Lost,” tweeted Floridian Errol Phillips, whose profile describes him as a “Tea Party Conservative.” Others disagreed: “they [Tea Party] are not a party welcome to Jews,” tweeted Jacob Kornbluh, a conservative political activist and religious Jew from Brooklyn, New York.
Cantor’s departure from Congress next year also means that the pro-Israel community will lose one of its best allies on Capitol Hill. However, the issue did not come up in the primary campaign. Brat’s website does not mention Israel, yet calls for a strong foreign policy: “We must secure our borders, support the Armed Forces, both at home and abroad, and maintain a strong national defense in order to secure our country’s future.”
Arguably, Lieberman’s loss in 2006 had far more to do with nascent anti-Israel tendencies among Democrats than Cantor’s loss in 2014 has to do with any such feeling among Republicans. Anti-war Democrats routinely cast Lieberman as a traitor to the party–and the country–because of his support for the Iraq War and George W. Bush’s war on terror, which some on the left characterized as a surreptitious campaign on Israel’s behalf. Cantor’s defeat was more unexpected than Lieberman’s, and less connected to his personal identity.
On Tuesday evening, some Cantor supporters discussed a Lieberman-style comeback, perhaps a write-in effort like that which Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski used in 2010 after her primary loss. Such an effort is unlikely. Yet–thanks in part to Cantor’s efforts–there are several Jewish Republican candidates eager to pick up where he left off.