WASHINGTON (JTA) — Eric Cantor’s defeat in one constituency, Virginia’s 7th Congressional district, triggered mourning among another: Republican Jews.
Since 2009, Rep. Cantor (R-Va.) has been the only Jewish Republican in Congress. After the 2010 GOP takeover of the House, he became the majority leader. He is the highest-ranking Jew in congressional history.
But the meteoric rise of Cantor, 51, came to a screeching halt on Tuesday when he was trounced in a Republican primary in his Richmond-area district by a poorly financed Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, an economics professor.
“Obviously, we came up short,” Cantor told his stunned followers in a Richmond hotel ballroom. “Serving as the Seventh District congressman and having the privilege of being majority leader has been one of the highest honors of my life.”
The 55 percent to 44 percent defeat was a shock to Cantor and especially to Republican Jews for whom Cantor was a standard bearer.
“We’re all processing it,” said Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “He was an invaluable leader, he was so integral to the promotion of, to congressional support of the pro-Israel agenda. It is a colossal defeat not just for Republicans, but for the entire Jewish community.”
Cantor as also a natural ally for socially conservative Orthodox Jews who have sometimes been at odds with the Obama administration on religion-state issues.
In a statement, Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Orthodox Union, called Cantor “a friend and been a critical partner for the advocacy work of the Orthodox Jewish community on issues ranging from Israel’s security and the security of Jewish institutions in the United States, to religious liberty to educational reform, and opportunity to defending the needs of the nonprofit sector.”
Cantor was elected to Congress in 2000, when he was 37, after having served nine years in the Virginia legislature. From the start, he made clear he had three bedrocks: his faith, his state and his conservatism.
His first floor speech, on Jan. 31 2001, was in favor of making the Capitol Rotunda available for Holocaust commemoration, and in two minutes, he wove together the importance of Holocaust education, a nod to two Virginia founding fathers and an embrace of the foreign policy interventionism that would guide the George W. Bush administration.
“The remembrance of this dark chapter in human history serves as a reminder of what can happen when the fundamental tenets of democracy are discarded by dictatorial regimes,” a hesitant and nervous Cantor said.
“While we in the United States, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, have experienced years of peace and prosperity, we must not forget that genocide and human rights abuses continue to occur elsewhere around the world,” he continued. “As the leader of the free world, the United States must use its power and influence to bring stability to the world and educate people around the globe about the horrors of the Holocaust to ensure that it must never happen again.”