At a recent Jefferson Hotel luncheon held by the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor's speech was as reassuringly conservative as the menu of chicken breast, corn pudding and succotash. He urged guarding against terrorism, evoking new sanctions against Iran and thwarting regulation of global warming.
It was essentially the same speech that boyish, earnest Cantor, 47, might have given at any time since he was elected to Congress in 2000. So why was the well-heeled crowd at the Jefferson suddenly willing to shell out $140 a pop to hear him?
The reason is simple: Cantor, who represents the 7th Congressional District, is the center of national attention that most politicians his age can only dream of. In recent weeks, he's been getting plenty of air time, including NBC's “Meet the Press” and MSNBC's “Hardball,” where he wrestled with anchor Chris Matthews. “CBS News Sunday Morning” gave him a precious eight-minute-long profile detailing his background and calling him “one of the most powerful people in America.”
Cantor attributes his exposure to being named House minority whip after November's elections. “I sit at the leadership table and deal with all that comes with it,” he says. Months before being named whip, he was rumored to be a possible vice presidential candidate for Sen. John McCain before Gov. Sarah Palin was tapped.
Although he wouldn't define it this way, Cantor also is one of several ambitious Republicans scrambling to fill a political and policy vacuum left after the departure of George W. Bush, rated in polls as the most unpopular president. Voting reliably with the Bush administration, Cantor's been more adept at moving up the GOP hierarchy than at significant legislative breakthroughs. “Cantor has positioned himself nicely to be GOP leader for some time to come,” says Larry Sabato, the longtime political scientist at the University of Virginia.
With a Democrat in the White House, Cantor can play a new role of contrarian. As party disciplinarian, he's brow-beaten party cadres to try to block Obama's stimulus package and prevent Obama from getting access to the federal bank bailout money that Cantor voted for last year. He's been a scourge of what he says is excessive spending by Democrats who are shoving the eventual bill off on voters. “There needs to be a check and balance on what is going on in Washington,” he says.
Trying to lead a GOP revival, Cantor — along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts — has launched the supposedly bipartisan National Council for a New America, which is vaguely reminiscent of fellow Republican Newt Gingrich's highly successful Contract with America policy movement in the 1990s. Cantor says the council is designed to generate new free-market policies through town-hall-style meetings. But it's already run into obstacles. Jealous over controlling the GOP agenda, some Republicans such as radio attack dog Rush Limbaugh have dissed the initiative. Democrats complain that Cantor's crowd is using public money for a partisan effort.
Why does Cantor generate such national interest? His ethnic background and religion are key reasons. Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in Congress. His face is camera-friendly and he speaks in a soft, Southern accent that belies his ancestry. His grandmother, Cantor notes, left czarist Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution and ended up raising two sons above a grocery store in Richmond's largely black-populated neighborhood of Jackson Ward.
According to the Jewish magazine Moment, Cantor grew up in an affluent family in a West End neighborhood “with two Jewish country clubs and two delis.” Unlike many successful Jews, who tend to be New Deal-style Democrats, the Cantors were conservative Republicans. Young Eric attended pricey Collegiate School before moving on to George Washington University and then William and Mary law school.
Politics was a family affair. Cantor's father had close ties to the late Richard “Dick” Obenshain, who drew many Democrats into the GOP. As an undergrad in Washington, Cantor interned with another family friend, Rep. Tom Bliley, who taught him the ropes on Capitol Hill and enthusiastically backed his run for Congress in 2000. Through much of the 1990s, Cantor served in the House of Delegates, earning a reputation as a reliable Republican and hard worker.
His family business involves real estate and law. Cantor earned a master's degree in real estate at Columbia University in New York where he met his wife, Diane, a Floridian and business maven who later helped launch the highly regarded Virginia College Savings Plan. She was appointed by former Republican Gov. George Allen, who also served as a Cantor mentor.
Cantor has been aided by strong support from such major campaign contributors as the electric utility Dominion and NVR, a major home builder. Also helping is the stature of his wife, an executive with New York Private Bank and Trust, which is the holding company for Emigrant Bank. The company, however, drew some controversy when it got federal bailout money before Cantor disclosed it. She is also a board member at Media General, which owns the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The newspaper typically serves up fawning coverage of Cantor after disclosing his wife's position as a company director.
How long can the Cantor love fest last? Given the conservatism of his district, which stretches from the mostly white western suburbs of Richmond all the way to Madison County in the Blue Ridge, Cantor should be able to fend off competitors indefinitely. Last fall he easily beat Anita Hartke, a Culpeper area real estate agent who complains that Cantor pushes “the same old party line” that brought on the economic crisis.
Sabato sees Cantor's recent success as being orchestrated by some tough advisers such as Ray Allen of Chesterfield County, a longtime political consultant with close ties to the GOP. Yet Sabato questions how much of Cantor's sudden political prowess is real. “Last year, there was supposedly a boomlet for him to be vice president. But I've never had a single person in the McCain camp say he was on the short list — not even the middle list,” Sabato says.
Moreover, Cantor is going to have some competition as he tries to position himself as the youthful, new voice of a revived GOP. One possible rival is Rep. Paul Ryan, a 39-year-old Wisconsin Republican who's attempting major revisions to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
While some people see Cantor as presidential material, Sabato says he's best remaining in Congress or perhaps running for U.S. Senate. Whatever the future holds, Cantor is on a roll. S