Can Eric Cantor Save the GOP? the New Minority Whip Is the Highest Ranking Jewish Republican in the History of the U.S. House of Representatives

By Greenberger, Robert S. | Moment, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Can Eric Cantor Save the GOP? the New Minority Whip Is the Highest Ranking Jewish Republican in the History of the U.S. House of Representatives


Greenberger, Robert S., Moment


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Not long ago, Eric Cantor wouldn't have been recognized if he strolled outside the U.S. Capitol grounds. But now the 45-year-old minority whip and only Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives has become the face of Republican opposition to the White House.

Photographs of the conservative congressman from Virginia were splashed on the front pages of the nation's newspapers in February after he helped keep all 178 House GOP members from voting for President Barack Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package. That feat, as rare as pitching a no-hitter, won the grudging admiration of the acerbic New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who wrote that "somehow the most well-known person on the planet lost control of the economic message to someone named Eric Cantor."

Since entering the House in 2001, Cantor has been the consummate party insider. His climb--he was appointed chief deputy whip at the end of his first term and last November was elected whip, a position recently held by the likes of Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay--has been meteoric. While his detractors complain that he is a partisan divider, his supporters hope that Cantor, who occupies the highest position of any Jewish Republican in the history of the House, is the Moses who will lead the GOP back to the promised land.

Cantor was born on June 6, 1963, into an affluent family in the West End of Richmond, a neighborhood with two Jewish country clubs and two delis. He grew up in a traditional, kosher--and solidly Republican--home.

His parents sent him to the Collegiate School, an elite private school in Richmond, where attendance at Christian chapel services was required, as was participation in Christmas pageants. "It was my parents' choice to send me to a private school, and I think it made me realize who I am and allowed me to identify that much more with the Jewish faith," Cantor says in his buttery soft Southern accent.

Cantor's father, Eddie, a lawyer, ran a successful real estate company. He was also active in Virginia Republican politics and had close ties to Richard Dudley "Dick" Obenshain, who recruited numerous Virginia Democrats to the GOP. As a teenager, Cantor helped with the grunt work of campaigns--stuffing envelopes and putting up yard signs.

The seminal political experience of Cantor's youth was the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as president. "Reagan was my inspiration," says Cantor, who was 17 when the Gipper was elected. "I wasn't even old enough to vote yet, but somehow he sparked something in me." It was an especially euphoric time for Jewish Republicans. Reagan captured 39 percent of the Jewish vote--the highest showing for a Republican since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eddie Cantor, who served as state treasurer for Reagan's campaign, attended the Republican National Convention in Detroit and returned to regale his son with stories about the charismatic California governor. "It's been an interesting sort of upbringing, being a Republican and being Jewish, but I found it allowed me to see America at its best," says Cantor.

The following year, Cantor laid the groundwork for what would become a critical political alliance. As a freshman studying at George Washington University, he interned for Thomas Bliley, a Republican Virginia congressman, a Catholic and a former Democrat. Bliley liked Cantor, whom he remembers as a "very polite, very smart young man," and the following summer the political science major drove the congressman around his district as he campaigned for reelection. "Eric was a good driver, and I didn't kill him smoking my pipe in the car," recalls Bliley.

After graduating in 1985, Cantor earned a law degree from Virginia's College of William and Mary and a master's degree in real estate development in 1989 from Columbia University. It was in New York that Cantor met his future wife, Diana Fine, on a blind date. …

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