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Eric Cantor Didn't Lose Because He's Jewish. But His Religion Has Caused Difficulties in Congress.

Jim WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the reasons being tossed out to explain Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat to David Brat last night, there’s one that’s especially inflammatory: Judaism. From The New York Times

David Wasserman, a House political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said another, more local factor has to be acknowledged: Mr. Cantor, who dreamed of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, was culturally out of step with a redrawn district that was more rural, more gun-oriented and more conservative. 

“Part of this plays into his religion,” Mr. Wasserman said. “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.” 

Over the course of his 14 years in Washington, Cantor never ignored that elephant—and often tried to exploit it. This was most evident when it came to fundraising, which was the foundation of the Cantor political operation.

Back in 2002, Cantor was given a place on the House Republican leadership team as a mere freshman largely because, as a former GOP congressman once explained to me, the fact that Cantor is Jewish gave him “access to donors we didn’t typically have access to.” Cantor not only helped the GOP fundraising machine make inroads into the big-money (and typically Democratic) Jewish precincts in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York; he also helped GOP congressmen tap their local Jewish communities for money. Nearly every House Republican I’ve ever spoken to about Cantor’s fundraising prowess has a story about the Virginia congressman parachuting into their districts and paying a visit to the local Friends of Israel or Jewish Federation on their behalves. “If you want to have him come and speak to the Jewish community in Charleston, he’s willing to do that,” West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito once told me.

Beyond fundraising, Cantor’s religion gave him that thing his fellow Republicans so often lack and desperately covet: a diversity chit. He’s the only Jewish Republican in Congress—“I make the Jewish Caucus in the House bipartisan every time I go in,” he likes to joke—and his quest to become speaker of the House was made to seem a little less grubby and sweaty by the fact that he was seeking to make history by becoming the first Jewish speaker. More broadly, Cantor’s religion gave him a national platform. When his allies floated his name as a potential running mate for John McCain in 2008, the only reason anyone (although apparently not McCain) took the idea seriously was because the potential of picking a Jewish veep had game-changing potential.

But did Cantor’s Judaism—which was such an obvious asset on the Hill and nationally—become part of his undoing back in his district, as Wasserman suggested to the Times? It’s hard to see it. Brat certainly didn’t make an issue out of Cantor’s religion in the race, not even in subtle ways by, say, attacking his support of Israel; if you watch the YouTube videos of Brat’s speeches to Evangelical churches, he spends more time talking about de Tocqueville than Jesus. And, while Wasserman posits that Cantor’s Judaism was culturally out of step with the more rural, redrawn district, Cantor actually won the less populous parts of Virginia’s Seventh. It was in the Richmond suburbs, which had always been Cantor’s base, where he got trounced by Brat.

None of this is to say that Cantor’s religion hasn’t caused him difficulties over the years. There was always something uncomfortable about hearing Cantor’s Republicans colleagues attribute his fundraising success to his Judaism. And their portrayals of Cantor as an awkward grind—as someone who was no fun to be around—carried a whiff of cultural stereotyping. I remember wincing when one of them told me a story of being nonplussed at encountering an anxious Cantor not long after he joined the House GOP leadership: “I was like, ‘Dude, you just got appointed chief deputy whip and made it onto the Ways and Means Committee. It’s Hanukkah every day for you!’”

If Cantor ever experienced similar discomfort, he didn’t let on. Perhaps he was truly oblivious to it, or perhaps to acknowledge it would be too personally (not to mention politically) painful. Indeed, to the extent Cantor ever did view his religion as a liability, it was only with regard to his relationships with Democrats. When I profiled Cantor back in 2011, he was in the midst of another one of his serial reinventions. It was just a few months after the debt-ceiling fight, in which Cantor sabotaged Barack Obama and John Boehner’s attempts to strike a grand bargain, and Cantor was now trying to portray himself as a bipartisan conciliator and someone willing to work with the president. He spent most of his time with me hammering home that message, saying things like, “I’m not this guy with horns and a partisan only.”

It was only when the subject of religion came up that Cantor seemed to grow more reflective. A number of his allies and aides had told me that one of the reasons they believed Cantor was so despised on the left was because of his religion—and the expectation that, as a Jew, he should be a Democrat. When I asked Cantor during one of our interviews in his Capitol office if he agreed with that theory, there was a long, painful pause. “I don’t, I can’t imagine that,” he finally said, “but it could be.” He went on to recall the criticism he received from some Jewish groups for meeting privately with Benjamin Netanyahu after the 2010 midterms—“I remember they laid into me, in a way, accusing me of things as a Jew, which I couldn’t even imagine”—and how any time there was a sign about Hitler or the Holocaust at a Tea Party rally, he was asked about it by the press. “It’s you get a bris, you’re a Democrat,” he said with a sigh.

And then Cantor, who’s not exactly known as a raconteur, decided to tell me a story. It was about how he met his wife, Diana, in New York in the 1980s. He was in the city getting an MBA in real estate development at Columbia; Diana, who came from a prominent Jewish and Democratic family in Florida, was there working for Goldman Sachs. A mutual friend set them up on a date. During the meal, the conversation turned to politics, and Cantor—whose father was Ronald Reagan’s Virginia campaign treasurer in 1980—revealed his Republican beliefs. “Diana went into the other room with the person who set us up,” Cantor recalled. “She said, ‘I thought you said he was Jewish!'”