Eric Cantor Loss Plunges Jewish Republicans Into Despair

Will Stunning Defeat Put Paid to GOP Outreach to Tribe?

End of an Era: Eric Cantor announced he will step down as House majority leader at the end of July after losing a primary election.
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End of an Era: Eric Cantor announced he will step down as House majority leader at the end of July after losing a primary election.

By Nathan Guttman

Published June 11, 2014.

“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.

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