“Numb. Speechless. Sad,” tweeted Matt Brooks, head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, minutes after results came in from Virginia’s 7th district.
Those results made clear that Eric Cantor’s meteoric political run had abruptly come to an end at a time when Brooks, like most other Republican backers of Cantor, was focused on the majority leader’s chances of becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House. No one paid much attention to the local primary race.
Over the course of his more than 13 years in Congress, Cantor had become the poster child for Jewish Republicans and not only because he’s been the only Jewish Republican in Congress for the past six years. Cantor embodied what activists believed to be the new Jewish Republican: young, tough and unapologetically conservative, breaking ranks with a history of Jewish Republican lawmakers who sought a centrist path, closer to the moderate end of the party’s political spectrum. The late Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who left the GOP to become a Democrat in 2009, was more typical of the kind of centrist that had long been familiar to Jewish voters.
But as Cantor and his supporters learned on the night of the June 11 primaries, cautious steps toward the right end of the party won’t necessarily be enough to satisfy its conservative wing.
It was not only the dream of a Jewish House speaker that has now been crushed — and Jewish Republicans would have loved to claim that title before their more numerous Democratic co-religionists. Cantor’s loss to tea party challenger David Brat vividly illustrated the schism within the GOP. And it served as a reminder of what has made some Jews skittish about the modern GOP — a sense that they would be aligning themselves with ultra-conservatives, tea partiers and libertarians with whom they have little in common.
“It’s very disturbing and very distressing,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a Virginia Jewish Republican who had worked in several GOP administrations. “It is indicative of a very disturbing trend in the Republican party.”
Kilberg, a self-defined centrist, stressed that her concerns over the future of her party, which have been validated by Cantor’s ouster, are not due to the departure of the sole Jewish Republican; they stem from the broader problem facing all moderate GOP supporters.
Not all Jewish Republicans, however, share these sentiments. Jeff Ballabon, a longtime conservative, sees a parallel between the evolution of his party and the way Orthodox Jews like himself are gaining more influence. “In the long run, Orthodox and traditional Jewish Republicans are growing and coalescing and they will find their place in the right wing of the Republican party,” he said.
Many commentators have pegged Cantor’s loss to his position regarding immigration reform, which was seen as insufficient and obstructive for Democrats, and was deemed far reaching and too liberal in the eyes of tea party and conservative voters.
Jewish activists may have been the first to identify Cantor’s vulnerability on this issue, though they likely did not grasp just how fragile his political standing was at the time. Supporters of immigration reform who took to Cantor’s hometown of Richmond, Virginia, in late February, sought to apply pressure on his soft spot — his own family’s Jewish immigration history — believing that the tough politician would not be able to ignore stories of immigrants similar to that of his bubbe who settled in Virginia after fleeing anti-Semitism in Russia.
Results were mixed. Cantor initially ignored the call but later agreed to meet with local rabbis from Richmond to discuss the issue. It was the only immigration advocacy group he agreed to sit down with, but it yielded no results. Cantor, identified by immigration supporters as the key obstacle to passing legislation in the House of Representatives, would not commit to bringing a comprehensive reform bill to a vote and only promised to support limited fixes to the immigration system.
Even his slightest show of moderation on the issue proved to be detrimental in the current GOP climate. Cantor understood too late in the game that what Democrats viewed as a tough stance on immigration was still too weak for his tea party-supported rival. He sent out fliers flaunting his credentials as “the No. 1 guy standing between America and immigration reform.”
Ironically, the success of immigration reform activists in pushing Cantor toward the center, also brought about the demise of the effort, supported by large swaths of the Jewish community, to pass a comprehensive reform bill. The message sent from Richmond to House Republicans was loud and clear: Any sign of compromise on the issue will result in political retribution of the kind Cantor suffered on election night.
For some Jewish Republicans, Cantor’s loss will go down mainly as a symbolic defeat. With very dim prospects of any Jewish Republican winning a seat in November, making the case that the GOP is a welcoming home to Jewish voters has become just harder.
“Cantor was a welcoming symbol, telling Jews they had a place in the Republican Party on the electoral level,” said Tevi Troy, a former Bush White House official. But he noted that there are plenty of Jewish Republicans in non-elected positions.
Ballabon argued against focusing on the religious affiliation of Cantor as a symbol for the community. “The debate is over policy and politics,” he said. “We need to get over our obsession of counting foreskins.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.