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The Man Who Would Be Congressman

The Man Who would be Congressman

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Eric Cantor's voice mailbox is full, and why not? To the victor go the phone calls.

It is the day after Cantor's paper-thin victory in the Republican primary for the 7th District congressional seat to be vacated by the retiring Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. In seeking to replace the powerful, 10-term congressman and chair of the House Commerce Committee, Cantor squeaked by with a 264-vote margin of victory over opponent Sen. Stephen H. Martin.

Over the next week, the calls and congratulatory letters pour in. "You will do a great job for your district and the commonwealth after your November election," one letter reads. And from another supporter: "It really fires me up to see a young, hardworking, gifted person like yourself going to Washington." Supporters of the 73rd House District delegate say out loud what the candidate says he's reluctant to even think: Cantor is a shoo-in in November.

By all accounts, the primary was the election. Cantor's victory in the Nov. 7 general election seems the surest thing since the Olympic basketball Dream Team vs. Croatia. The 7th is as Republican as Ronald Reagan himself. Bliley had trampled over each of his opponents for the past 20 years like Godzilla over Tokyo. Cantor has one of the most powerful and effective political organizations in the state running his campaign.

"It's as over as you can get," says University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

Yet Cantor insists, like a seasoned ballplayer who knows better than to look past the pennant race to the World Series, that there is no daydreaming of Capitol Hill. Not yet.

"I am so vigilant against doing that," he says outside his Wyndham home, his daughter Jenna, 7, squinting to look up at her dad. "I believe in incremental goals and focusing on the general election."

"Daddy?" Jenna interrupts. "Is my birthday going to be during the election?"

With Daddy so singularly focused on a race that's probably already won, Jenna lucks out. Her birthday is Nov. 23.

Cantor refuses to take for granted the general election against Democrat Warren Stewart, superintendent of Goochland County Schools and political unknown. Cantor's wife, Diana, says there has been no serious planning beyond November, only that even if her husband wins, they will not uproot the family and move to Washington.

But it remains highly improbable, darn near impossible, that the race against Stewart will come down to the nail-biter that was the primary.

Despite raising more than a half million dollars to Martin's less than $120,000, despite the backing of most of the Republicans in the General Assembly who endorsed a candidate, and despite the endorsements of the governor and the retiring congressman himself, Cantor barely won.

There were a number of reasons — first and foremost, low voter turnout, but just high enough for Cantor in the West End Richmond precincts, where Martin says about 16 percent of voters turned out, as opposed to between 11 and 13 percent in Martin's Chesterfield precincts.

Sabato does not rule out that the Gilmore endorsement may have hurt Cantor, that some Republican voters simply did not want to be dictated to, by the governor or anyone else. "It is very Virginia to not like to be told how to vote," Sabato says.

[image-1] (Chad Hunt / Style Weekly) A painful notion for Cantor is the possibility that his religion actually may have hurt him in the primary election. He is Jewish. Political analyst Larry Sabato says it was the "unspoken issue that people whispered about." Cantor, who heads the Virginia-Israel Partnership, has also traveled to Israel with the governor on a trade mission and sponsored legislation to offer income tax relief to Virginia's Holocaust victims.And, according to Sabato, there was another unspoken factor: Cantor is Jewish.

Martin, a Baptist who is popular among Christian conservatives, may have gotten a boost from heavier turn out among that group. "Cantor's religion hurt him," Sabato says. "It was the unspoken issue people whispered about. That was a factor."

Cantor says he heard that, too. He goes out of his way to say he doesn't think Martin was tied to that kind of talk but that people were saying there was one Christian in the race and it wasn't Eric Cantor.

"It gives me goose bumps," Cantor says, his voice tinged with anger. "It's the year 2000. The right to practice one's religion is one of the things this country was founded upon. … That whole issue is just repugnant."

If Eric Cantor was destined for Congress, no one is saying so. This is not the story of a boy dreaming all his life of a seat in the hallowed halls of the House of Representatives and then reaching his goal. This is about timing and opportunity. If anyone — Cantor, his parents, his wife, Tom Bliley — ever had lofty goals for him, they are not acknowledging it out loud. Moreover, the closest anyone comes to agreeing that Cantor appears to be a lock for the seat is when Diana Cantor offers a sort of wincing nod, as if to say, "It looks really good, but I don't want to jinx it by saying it."

The 37-year-old Cantor may, however, have been destined for political life in general. His parents, Eddie and Mary Lee Cantor, became involved in Henrico Republican politics in the 1970s, when Eric was a boy. Surrounded by bumper stickers and lawn signs, Eric was campaigning before he was old enough to vote.

In the Cantor household, politics was "a way of life." Cantor volunteered for Tom Bliley's 1980 congressional campaign and later worked as an intern and staffer, driving Bliley around the district, sometimes spending as many as 12 hours in the car with the congressman.

He says Bliley has had the biggest influence on his political life and speaks almost reverently of the retiring congressman. He admires Bliley's "style of leadership, his commitment to common-sense principles. He doesn't grandstand, he tells it like it is and gets the job done."

"[Politics] was the conversation every night at dinner," says the elder Cantor, 68, an attorney who has served as chairman of the Henrico County Republican Committee and the 3rd District Republican Committee chairman.

He characterizes his middle son as "slightly smarter than the next guy, but never expected to do this. ... Nobody envisions this. It happens when you get the opportunity."

The first opportunity came in 1991 when then-Del. Walter Stosch's 73rd District seat opened up in the Virginia House of Delegates. Other than his race against Martin, it was the closest election Cantor has ever run. He sweated it out, literally, in a hot gymnasium at J.R. Tucker High School against two other candidates at the Republican nominating convention. Since then, he has retained the seat, running unopposed in all but one race.

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