Richmond, Va. — Dozens of yard signs supporting Eric Cantor’s run for re-election lined the road leading to the Virginia Republican Roundup election rally. Cantor, who hosted the event — a combination political gathering and country fair — is considered one of the strongest forces helping struggling Republican candidates throughout the country.
Yet here was Cantor making a rare foray into retail politics with his own constituents.
This year, Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives, is spending a bit more time on his own campaign.
Facing a spirited Democratic challenger and an overall low approval rating for Congress and congressional Republicans, Cantor, the House Majority Leader and six-term congressman, even agreed to debate his rival, a rare move in itself for a congressional leader.
“We’ve always taken races seriously,” Cantor told the Forward, adding he is sure his district remains strongly conservative.
Experts and polling data support Cantor’s claim. Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, which includes parts of the capital, Richmond, and its suburbs, is solidly Republican and has become even more so after this year’s redistricting.
This support was apparent at the October 6 Republican Roundup, which was attended by 6,000 of the area’s GOP supporters. Families, sending off their children to jump on the inflatable moon bounce or to stand in line for a bean bag toss and face painting, waited to greet Cantor and his fellow Virginia candidate former governor George Allen, who is now running for the Senate.
“I’m a conservative Republican and formerly a big liberal,” stated Adrienne Haine, who moved to Richmond four decades ago from Brooklyn. A strong believer now in small government, Haine admitted she does not know of many other fellow Jewish voters who support Cantor. “The lack of support he gets from the Jewish community is a disgrace,” said Haine, proudly showing off the Cantor and Romney stickers on her shirt.
Ever since his first run for Congress in 2000, Cantor has received strong backing from his district. His election majorities have ranged from 59% in 2010 to a high of 75% in 2004.
Cantor, who switched from his Washington suit and tie to an open collared shirt, posed for pictures with supporters, listening to their advice and concerns. Known for his mild manner and genteelness, Cantor, 49, is soft spoken with a trace of southern accent he acquired growing up in Richmond. When talking to voters and supporters, Cantor presented himself first and foremost as their local congressman, abandoning Capitol Hill lingo and any sign of his top position in Republican congressional politics.
“This is a district that has a common sense conservative philosophy,” Cantor said in the interview. Invoking the Republicans’ mainstay theme, he explained that residents of Virginia’s 7th district want lower taxes and less regulation, and support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. But this safe district is witnessing, for the first time in over a decade, some real politics. Cantor’s aggressive Democratic challenger, Wayne Powell, a lawyer and former Army officer, has succeeded in injecting interest in the race — one sign of which is his success in getting Cantor to agree to a public debate.
The October 1 debate gave Powell an opportunity to lob some zingers at his veteran rival, accusing Cantor of being “so removed from reality” that his idea of small business is a hedge fund. Powell also accused Cantor of responsibility for the upcoming sequester that will lead to a steep cut in government spending across the board.
Cantor’s perceived lead remains strong despite the attacks. “We ranked the seat at ‘safe Republican’ and haven’t seen anything to change our mind,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which rates congressional races based on their competitiveness. Skelley acknowledged that Powell is “more than just a guy in a shirt” and that he is seen as one of the strongest challengers Cantor has met. But the makeup of the district and Cantor’s standing weigh heavily in favor of the incumbent, he said.
In deigning to face Powell directly, Cantor is likely looking beyond the district race. A strong showing would help him maintain his leadership position in Congress. “To defeat Powell — and to win big at the same time Republicans preserve their majority — would be affirmation of Cantor’s leadership, a pointed reminder to Speaker John Boehner to avoid turning his back to the Gentleman from Virginia,” wrote local columnist Jeff Schapiro in the Richmond Times Dispatch.
At the Republican Roundup event, Eric Cantor gift baskets were promised as prizes for raffle winners. The basket included a copy of “Young Guns,” a book by Cantor, Paul Ryan, who is now the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, and Republican Kevin McCarthy of California. The book lays out their platform for a fiscally conservative Republican party. A major win by Cantor in his district could help usher in another term of Young Guns politics in the House, meaning less compromise on spending and unbending insistence on large budget cuts and large tax cuts.
Cantor’s real adversary this year may be Congress itself. Many see him as that institution’s face at a time when the body is held in rock-bottom regard. Public approval of Congress, according to the latest Gallup poll, has reached an all time low, with only 10% of Americans viewing the institution favorably.
“Congress has always been a whipping boy, we know that,” Cantor told the Forward, but he argued that the real obstructions were mounted by the Democratic majority in the Senate, not the Republicans controlling the House. “So, again, there is a difference and we’re out making sure people understand where we are.” Toni Michelle Travis, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, believes the politics related to Cantor’s leadership in Washington will have scant impact on voters in his district. “Most people don’t even know what it means to be Majority Leader, except that he is on TV more,” she said.
As thousands of participants prepared to leave Cantor’s Republican Roundup in Richmond, his rival, Wayne Powell, held his own, notably smaller, rally a few miles away. An estimated 100 supporters gathered in a high school gym to hear the Democrat’s views. It was a shoestring operation, with family members helping out and staffers who doubled as stage workers stacking folding chairs as the event ended. “There’s a lot of discontent with Cantor and his positions on fiscal issues,” said Harriet Cobey, who attended Powell’s gathering.
Powell stressed that he is a “Democrat running as a Democrat,” but a recent TV ad put out by his campaign ends with the tagline “Wayne Powell, a Democrat who just may be your kind of Republican.”
“Being a Democrat in these areas is tough,” said David “Mud Cat” Saunders, a political strategist working with the Powell campaign. “You tell someone you’re a Democrat, you might as well tell them you’re a child molester,” he said.
The Appalachian-born political consultant believes that Democrats should come to Southern and rural voters with a “big tent” approach and work to dispel the notion that Democratic candidates are all about “tax and spend.” Eric Cantor, he believes, “has warts” and is not undefeatable. Polling done by the Powell campaign found that Cantor, despite enjoying a double-digit lead, has a low favorability rating and is viewed by voters as too focused on national issues, instead of on the district’s needs. One of these national issues could be Iran’s nuclear threat.
In an interview Powell told the Forward that he opposes a rush to war against Iran, saying that Cantor’s views on the issue are irresponsible. “I don’t like the concept of pre-emptive war,” Powell said, adding that any such war is “got to be something more than just ‘well you know, they may do something’ kind of thing.”
But like Cantor, Powell’s biggest challenge may not be the guy he’s running against. While he goes door to door, trying to convince Virginia voters to turn against Cantor, Powell’s own party seems unconvinced that he is a viable candidate. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which funds Democratic races, chose not to direct any resources to Powell, a clear sign that the party does not believe in his chances to beat Cantor. “I believe I’m a winner but they don’t know me that well,” Powell said in response.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com