Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., an ambitious 44-year-old first elected to the House in 2000, is emerging as his chamber’s most outspoken and active supporter of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. The only Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor has assumed a pivotal role in helping the McCain campaign build support—and raise money—in the Jewish community. And Cantor quite likely has his sights set even higher.
As chief deputy whip for House Republicans, Cantor is a party stalwart and conservative leader. So it’s all the more interesting that he has been encouraging the likely GOP presidential nominee’s occasional moderate forays. Cantor, for instance, speaks positively about McCain’s approach to global warming—an issue on which the Arizona senator’s early push for bipartisanship alienated many conservatives.
Growing public support for addressing climate change is “why we need John McCain, to help reach independent voters.… They focus on energy and the environment, where John McCain has taken the lead,” Cantor said in an April 21 interview with National Journal. “The more you go across the country, [you see that] the environment is a values issue, and it is beginning to shape elections.”
Likewise, Cantor said he is comfortable with McCain’s more centrist approach to immigration issues. “He gives us a prescription for action,” Cantor said.
And in an April 3 interview with NJ, Cantor voiced no misgivings about McCain’s presumed nomination. “He is the best candidate that we could have,” Cantor said. “He offers the solutions for change.”
Cantor, to be sure, is also comfortable with many of McCain’s conservative positions, especially on national security. When Cantor spoke to several hundred upscale suburban Chicago donors at the Lake County Republican Federation’s annual fundraising dinner on April 18, he focused on U.S. success in Iraq and the need to confront “radical Islam.” According to a report in the Lake County News -Sun, Cantor received an enthusiastic response when he criticized former President Carter’s recent visit with Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Syria.
In the interview with NJ, Cantor said that the controversy over Carter’s trip—combined with the call by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in his presidential campaign for direct talks with all interests in the Middle East—underscores McCain’s support for Israel and his appeal to Jewish voters in the November election.
Michael Menis, the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, agreed with those sentiments. “The Jewish community has a lot of concerns about Senator Obama and his past statements,” said Menis, who first met Cantor in 2002 and has brought him to the Chicago area for numerous fundraising and grassroots events.
“A lot of Jewish voters are looking closely at Senator McCain,” Menis added. “Someone like Representative Cantor, with his strong Jewish credentials, can be very persuasive in showing that Senator McCain is consistent with our values.”
During his Lake County visit, Cantor also praised hometown Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a moderate who faces a competitive re-election contest in a district where Republicans fear the impact of Obamamania. “We have to join together as a party, without 100 percent [conservative] litmus tests,” Cantor said. “We don’t have the luxury to be splintered, as happened to us in 2006.” Three days after his Illinois visit, he traveled to fundraising events in Austin and San Antonio for Reps. Michael McCaul and Lamar Smith, both R-Texas.
In his visits as a party leader to dozens of House districts during the past few years, Cantor has played heavily on his connections to local Jewish activists. He has raised money for other Republican candidates and his own campaign coffers, and he is poised to play a key role in keeping McCain competitive with the well-financed Democratic campaign this fall. “I am actively involved in fundraising for the campaign, especially with Jewish contributors who have interest in [McCain’s] vision for national security,” Cantor said.
On April 23, the Republican National Committee announced that Cantor will serve as chairman of the 2008 Victory Jewish Coalition, where he’ll lead outreach efforts to the Jewish community on behalf of McCain and the RNC.
A longtime Republican strategist who is well connected with both Cantor and the national GOP said that Cantor’s task will be reaching out to the “pro-Israel community.” This source called Cantor “very proud” and a “shameless self-promoter.”
After pitching in on the presidential campaign, who knows what’s next for Cantor.
During his campaign appearances, Cantor also pushes for his chief priority—Republican recapture of the House, about which he is notably optimistic. “I see our ability to take back the majority as tied to the success of John McCain,” Cantor said, adding that McCain “understands what’s wrong with Washington and has been fighting for change.… With that image, we [in the House] will be buoyed tremendously.”
Like most other House Republicans, Cantor has had limited direct dealings with McCain. (Only 18 current GOP members served with McCain when he was a House member from 1983 to ’86.) But Cantor, who endorsed McCain two days before Virginia’s February primary, said that he has been working regularly with top aides to the senator and his campaign organization.
Recent setbacks for Virginia Republicans have reinforced Cantor’s openness to McCain’s appeal for political consensus. The GOP lost the past two gubernatorial contests in the Old Dominion and the 2006 Senate race, and appears likely to lose the seat of retiring Sen. John Warner this fall to former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner. “With his military record, John McCain sells very well” as the state’s Republicans seek to regain momentum, Cantor said.
Although Cantor is spending a growing amount of his time on the road and on the telephone with potential contributors, he remains a key member of the House Republican leadership team. When the House is in session, he joins the daily leadership meeting that Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has organized with Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and GOP Conference Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla.
“It’s significant that Eric is the only one of the four who is in the [conservative] Republican Study Committee and is seen as one of their leaders,” a senior GOP leadership aide said. “With more-conservative members, he has a finger on that pulse.”
Last October, The Weekly Standard featured Cantor, along with Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., in a cover story titled “Young Guns of the House GOP.” The piece on Cantor said his ascent “seems inevitable. He is likely to become the top Republican in the House—which means speaker, if Republicans regain control.… That is, if he stays in the House.”
Cantor turned down the opportunity to run for Warner’s Senate seat this year. For now, he shows every intention of remaining in the House, where he is likely to move up to No. 7 in GOP seniority on the Ways and Means Committee after six panel members retire at year’s end.
Cantor has already been stymied in bids to move up the GOP leadership ladder. In early 2006, when then-Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, abandoned hope of regaining his majority leader’s post in the wake of his indictments the previous fall, Boehner challenged Blunt for the leader’s slot. Cantor was widely believed to have the votes to succeed Blunt as majority whip. But after Blunt narrowly lost the leader’s race, he retained the whip’s post himself.
After the November 2006 election, Cantor pulled back from making a bid for the minority whip post, which Blunt successfully sought. The relationship between the two lawmakers has been all the more dicey because it was Blunt who in 2002 first brought Cantor into the GOP leadership as chief deputy whip.
Although speculation is widespread that Cantor will make a leadership bid after this year’s election, he simply responds, “If there is a place to contribute, I will play it.” Should Republicans regain House control, additional leadership posts would open up.
It’s apparent that Cantor and his allies have given considerable thought to his opportunities for political advancement. One well-placed source rattled off a litany of Cantor’s GOP bona fides, noting that he is “young, Southern, a solid conservative, telegenic, battle-tested, a big fundraiser, very loyal, can keep Virginia red, and is well liked on the Hill.” Plus, the source noted, he has an attractive family, including his wife, Diana, who is an investment banker in Richmond, and three teenage children. This source went even further to speculate that Cantor could be an ideal running mate for McCain.
“That’s silly,” Cantor replied. “Who would think that’s possible?” But in what he calls the current “post-partisan era,” in which he likes to “think outside the box and tackle the big issues facing America today,” this active Jewish Republican may face few limits.
Staff Correspondent Kirk Victor contributed to this story.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.