WASHINGTON — Of the 278 Republicans in the US House and Senate, 277 are Christian. Following this week’s astonishing primary defeat of the party’s only Jewish representative, US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), it’s a safe bet that the next Congress will include exactly zero non-Christian members of the GOP.
Nobody saw Eric Cantor’s defeat coming, least of all his own staff, who — as late as last week — had an internal poll showing him up by more than 30 percentage points over his challenger, David Brat, a Tea Party activist and economics professor at a rural Virginia college.
To make sense of Brat’s startling victory, pollsters and pundits are scrambling to figure out how a candidate who was elected on seven previous occasions, held one of the party’s top leadership positions, and outspent his opponent by more than 20:1, could have suffered such an unexpected and ignominious defeat.
Is it possible that Cantor, a movement conservative and outspoken critic of President Barack Obama, was too liberal? Perhaps he suffered an anti-establishment backlash after nearly a decade-and-a-half in Washington. Or maybe he simply ran a terrible campaign.
In the first few hours after the primary, these were the questions being asked on TV talk shows and in the media. But it was only a matter of time until someone raised the issue of Cantor’s religion.
First, there was The New York Times quoting Dave Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who said, “You can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”
That set off a wave of stories speculating that Cantor’s Jewish heritage played a role in his defeat, especially since his opponent wears his Christianity on his sleeve. David Brat got his BA at a Christian college in Michigan and an MA in divinity at the Princeton Theological Seminary before completing a doctorate in economics at American University, in which his dissertation examined the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism.
If voters had a problem with Cantor’s religion, the Washington Post figured the local Richmond, Virginia, Jewish community would have noticed something amiss during the campaign. But local Jewish leaders told the paper there was no anti-Semitism at all in the race.
“If we had gotten wind of it, the Jewish community would have reacted. We wouldn’t have let something like that percolate,” Richmond lobbyist and Jewish community activist Richard Grossman told the Post.
But J.J. Goldberg, the veteran Jewish American journalist, said Cantor’s faith absolutely played a role in the race, but cautioned that there’s a major difference between being anti-Semitic and pro-Christian.
‘It’s not that they don’t like Jews… It’s just that they love Jesus’
“It’s not that they don’t like Jews. I’d bet that 90% of the 36,000 zealots who turned out to vote for David Brat on Tuesday (vs. 29,000 for Cantor) don’t have an anti-Semitic bone in their body,” he wrote in the Forward. “It’s just that they love Jesus. They want more religious values guiding and governing our public life. And by religious values, they mean Christian values. That’s David Brat’s main calling card.”
Commentary’s John Podhoretz called it “shameful” to say Cantor’s loss had anything to do with anti-Jewish sentiment and said “suggesting otherwise is to tar David Brat and the voters of the Seventh Congressional District in Virginia with the taint of anti-Semitism.”
Tevi Troy, a prominent Jewish Republican who worked in the George W. Bush White House and served as deputy secretary of health and human services, agreed that “the anti-Semitism stuff is overplayed. It was not a problem in seven previous elections.”
Still, Troy said Cantor’s defeat is a difficult pill to swallow for Jewish Republicans.
‘As a mainstream conservative, Cantor has been far more in sync with the GOP caucus than other Jewish Republicans of the past’
“Eric Cantor is symbolically important to Jewish Republicans, since he is a high-ranking elected Jewish official. There have been many high-level appointed Jewish Republicans, at Cabinet agencies, on Congressional staffs, and at the White House, but elected ones have been harder to come by. He also differs from most of his Jewish Republican predecessors in that he is a conservative Republican, and previous GOP Jews in Congress have tended to be liberal Republicans, such as Arlen Specter — who deserted the party — Ben Gilman, and Jacob Javits. As a mainstream conservative, Cantor has been far more in sync with the GOP caucus than other Jewish Republicans of the past.”
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, called Cantor’s loss “one of those incredible, evil twists of fate that just changed the potential course of history.”
Jewish Democrats can’t help being gleeful about Cantor’s fate. His conservative views have often perplexed American Jews, who are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. Steve Rabinowitz, a former Bill Clinton White House aide and one of the primary backers of a new Jewish organization urging Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016, said Jewish Republicans “just lost their poster child.”
When asked if Cantor’s defeat will have any effect on Republican efforts to attract more Jewish voters in this year’s mid-term elections or the 2016 presidential race, Rabinowitz said, “No. They were never going to attract many Jewish voters this year — or in 2016 — and they’re still not going to.”
Without Cantor, Rabinowitz asked, “Who else they got?”
“Eric Cantor is politically dead and Jacob Javits is still actually dead. Neither one is coming back and delivering any Jews to the Republicans.”