The electoral defeat of Jewish Congressman Eric Cantor in his Virginia constituency has triggered shock and mourning among Republican Jews.
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Following his loss, Cantor announced on Wednesday that he'd be stepping down as House majority leader on July 31.
Since 2009, Cantor (R-Va.) has been the only Jewish Republican in Congress. He became the majority leader in 2010, after the Republican takeover of the House, and is the highest-ranking Jewish lawmaker in congressional history.
But the meteoric rise of Cantor, 51, came to a screeching halt on Tuesday when he was trounced in a major Republican primary upset by a poorly-financed Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, an economics professor.
“Obviously we came up short,” Cantor told his stunned followers after the result was announced. “Serving as the 7th District congressman and having the privilege of being majority leader has been one of the highest honors of my life.”
The defeat, with Brat garnering 55 percent of the vote to 44 percent for the incumbent, was a shock to Cantor and especially to Republican Jews for whom Cantor was a standard-bearer.
“We’re all processing it,” said Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He was an invaluable leader, integral to the promotion of congressional support for the pro-Israel agenda. It is a colossal defeat not just for Republicans but for the entire Jewish community.”
Cantor also was a natural ally for socially conservative Orthodox Jews, who at times have been at odds with the Obama administration on religion-state issues.
In a statement, Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Orthodox Union, called Cantor a friend who has "been 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, educational reform, and defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.”
For Jewish leaders, Cantor was a critical address within the Republican Party for the Jewish community’s domestic agenda, said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“When there was a need for a heavy lift for much of our Jewish federation agenda, we could count on being able to call Eric and have him help us get to the finish line,” Daroff said.
As majority leader, Cantor stayed to the right of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and many believed he would soon challenge Boehner to become the first Jewish House speaker.
Cantor and Obama have not had a good relationship. Cantor has not attended a single Jewish event at the White House during Obama’s two terms, although he has been invited to all of them.
Heeding a Republican establishment that believed the Tea Party had gotten out of hand, Cantor more recently tilted toward the center, championing job creation programs, criticizing foreign policy isolationists within the GOP and expressing a willingness to consider elements of the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill, although until now he has resisted bringing it to the House floor.
That tilt and, according to some local news reports, a perception that Cantor was not sufficiently invested in his district, helped contribute to his defeat. Brat placed special focus on criticizing Cantor’s tentative embrace of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors.
Hadar Susskind, the director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that is a leader on immigration reform, said it was bizarre to accuse Cantor of being overly accommodating on immigration.
“He has been the single largest obstruction in the effort to reform our immigration laws, so those efforts lose nothing with his defeat,” Susskind told JTA.
Democrats immediately seized on Cantor’s loss as evidence that the Republican Party is becoming increasingly extreme.
“When Eric Cantor, who time and again has blocked common sense legislation to grow the middle class, can't earn the Republican nomination, it's clear the GOP has redefined 'far right,’ ” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.
Steve Rabinowitz, a publicist who represents Jewish groups as well as liberal and Democratic causes, said he was conflicted about Cantor’s departure. On the one hand, he couldn’t help but be amused that Cantor’s flirtation with the Tea Party came back to haunt him. On the other, Rabinowitz suggested that Cantor’s defeat was a minus for the Jewish community.
“Wearing my mainstream Jewish skullcap, it's clear the community needs people like Eric Cantor,” Rabinowitz said. “This is a loss for the Jewish community. I have my disagreements with him, but he’s been there for the community.”