WASHINGTON — The “Eric Cantor” sandwich was unveiled January 23 at Stacks, Washington’s new kosher deli, at a fundraiser for the newly appointed deputy House majority whip.
The sandwich chosen to carry the name of the only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives was a tuna-based stacker — not quite a power lunch befitting the person who GOP leaders hope will reinforce the growing trend of Jews switching their partisan loyalty from Democratic to Republican.
That may explain why Cantor asked Stacks to switch his eponymous sandwich from tuna to roast beef on challah, a deli special that exudes Jewish power.
Republican leaders do not acknowledge that Cantor’s appointment had to do with him being Jewish, but Jewish activists in Washington say they know for a fact that it did, and that the appointment came from the White House. President Bush and his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill “saw an opportunity and brilliantly seized it, just like they did with J.C. Watts,” said a well-placed Jewish activist in Washington. Watts, a former congressman from Oklahoma who was the only black Republican in the House, was appointed to the senior position of chairman of the House Republican Conference in his second term in Congress.
Asked about the comparison in an interview with the Forward, Cantor suggested asking Rep. Roy Blunt, the new House majority whip, why he decided to choose the young congressman from Virginia as his chief deputy — the whip has 48 deputies. Cantor said he would like to think that the choice had to do more with his skills than with his faith. Blunt did not return calls seeking comment, but last week he told The Weekly Standard that Cantor’s being the only Jew in the House leadership — Republican or Democrat — “gives him substantial credibility to help reach out in that direction.”
The $500-a-plate Stacks event was an opportunity for GOP leaders to showcase the young congressman they see as personifying the party’s new appeal to Jews, hoping he will become a magnet for additional Jewish support. Cantor, a second-term congressman who looks much younger than his age of 39, was beaming. Stacks was packed with members of Congress and senior staffers, administration officials, prominent Republican activists and the newly empowered crowd of Jewish Republicans in Washington.
Cantor “will be the party’s most visible liaison to Jewish groups and in my view will be an important liaison to conservatives and religious Christians,” said lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one of the most powerful Republican Jews in Washington, who hosted the event in the deli he opened last month. Abramoff described Cantor as having “real Jewish credentials,” yet one who “does not use his observance as a political weapon. Jews appreciate that, as do non-Jews.”
But Fred Zeidman, a prominent Jewish Republican who was appointed by his personal friend George W. Bush to head Washington’s United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says that the party doesn’t need Cantor to attract Jews. He said that the president, with his strong support of Israel, is enough of an asset, and that Cantor doesn’t need to be Jewish in order to shoot up the ranks of the party. “He is no affirmative-action baby,” Zeidman said of Cantor, “and he is no one-trick pony either.” What earned him the confidence of the GOP leadership, Zeidman said, are his loyalty to the party and his personal skills.
Unlike other prominent Jewish Republicans on the Hill — such as Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota — Cantor is a clear-cut conservative. He supports gun rights, opposes abortion and has been a strong ally of business interests. In the House, he co-sponsored a bill that ultimately did not pass which would have allowed religious organizations to participate in political campaigns.
“Cantor is very conservative economically, and I think that’s where he’s going to lose quite a few potential Jewish Republican add-ons,” said Akiba Covitz, a professor of law at the University of Richmond and a member of Richmond’s Knesset Beth Israel, the same Orthodox synagogue that Cantor attends. “From a cultural perspective and a religious one, that’s just not something that Jews will easily tolerate, at least at this point. But how far are we willing to go [toward the GOP] in our support of Israel is another question.”
Cantor said that Jews feel more at ease with the Republican Party not only because they perceive it as being strong on Israel, but also because of a generational transformation that is loosening the historic link between Jews and the Democratic Party. “There is no doubt that the mainstream American Jewish community, for a generation or two, has been much more Democratic-leaning than Republican-leaning. But that is changing,” Cantor said.
Jews, he said, “have advanced politically, socio-economically… what you have today is again the maturing of American Jews and interests… to what the Republican Party stands for on the domestic agenda: the sense of the individual, and lower taxes, and less government involvement to create a free-market environment.”
Moreover, he said, American Jews who may have been put off in the past by the strong influence of the Christian Right on the GOP now realize that Evangelical Christians are natural allies of Israel and natural supporters of the American–Israeli relationship.
Cantor said he believes he is in a unique position to convey such messages to American Jews. He grew up in a kosher home and is active in Jewish causes, having helped establish the Virginia Museum of the Holocaust in Richmond and the Virginia-Israel Partnership project, which encourages trade between his state and the Jewish state. He is a newly appointed member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which has direct jurisdiction over taxes, trade, Social Security, Medicare, healthcare and welfare reform.
“All this gives me an ability to relate to [American Jews] and to tell them: look, we have a tremendous opportunity here to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship with a president that has provided the open door to ensure that Israel does not compromise its security and is not forced into doing so,” he said.