June 11, 2014
WASHINGTON — As the lone Jewish Republican in Congress, representing a deeply conservative, overwhelmingly Christian district in Virginia while dreaming of becoming the first Jewish speaker of the House, Representative Eric Cantor always had a delicate task.
“He’s a public official in an overtly non-Jewish world,” said Rabbi Gary S. Creditor of Temple Beth El in Richmond, which Mr. Cantor attended as a boy. “He didn’t flaunt being a Jew, and he did not highlight it, but he did not deny it, either.”
Now Mr. Cantor’s stunning primary loss on Tuesday — to a little-known economics professor, David Brat, who called his election “a miracle from God” — has raised questions about whether anti-Semitism was at work. “Did Eric Cantor lose because he’s Jewish?” asked TheWeek.com, a newsmagazine.
The answer to that, political analysts and Jewish leaders in Richmond say, is no: Mr. Cantor, who resigned as House majority leader on Wednesday, effective July 31, was toppled because voters saw him as out of touch. Mr. Cantor appeared to give a nod to the religion issue on Wednesday, when he opened a news conference by saying that “growing up in the Jewish faith” he had “read a lot in the Old Testament, and you learn about setbacks.”
But analysts do say that Mr. Brat — who has a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and often invokes God in his speeches — appeals to Christian conservatives in a way that Mr. Cantor simply cannot.
“I think he was able to be an attractive candidate to that particular constituency,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Cantor doesn’t employ that kind of rhetoric.”
Mr. Brat, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, speaks often about a return to “Judeo-Christian values” and cites his “belief in God.” In an interview on Fox News with Sean Hannity after his surprise victory, he said he felt that “God acted through the people on my behalf.”
A Roman Catholic, Mr. Brat, 49, has also written scholarly articles exploring the intersection of faith and the economy. In a 2011 article on usury and capitalism, written for Union Presbyterian Seminary, he wrote: “What is the Christian response to an ever-increasing size of government? What does God want?”
Mr. Cantor, 51, has adopted a much more nondenominational political and religious persona, said Allison Hoffman, who wrote a lengthy profile of him in 2011 for Tablet, a Jewish magazine. As a Southern Jew, she said, he is not the same kind of political creature as a Jew from, say, New York.
“He really grew up Southern, and he grew up speaking the language of faith in the public square,” Ms. Hoffman said in an interview, “and speaking it in such a way that it didn’t matter that it was the Jewish faith.”
Even so, David Wasserman, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report — whose assertion that religion was “the elephant in the room” stirred up an online fuss — sees Mr. Cantor as “culturally dissimilar from his own voters.”
Mr. Wasserman added: “Many conservative candidates running in similar primaries have used evangelical language and imagery to establish a connection and comfort level with voters. Cantor can’t do that, he was never able to do that, and to his credit, he never pretended to be someone he is not.”
There were hints of anti-Semitism when Mr. Cantor first ran for the House in 2000 — a “whisper campaign,” Ms. Hoffman reported, portraying his opponent as “the only Christian” in the race. But there was nothing of that sort this time, said Richard Grossman, a Jewish lobbyist in Richmond and a Cantor supporter. “If there was an undertone or a hidden message somewhere, the Jewish community would have reacted,” he said, “and I would say our history has been that we may overreact.”
Mr. Cantor’s district was redrawn in 2010 to make it tilt even more to the right — a factor that some analysts say may have in the end helped Mr. Brat. Roughly one-quarter of 1 percent of the district’s population is Jewish, according to the Berman Jewish Databank, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America.
In the House, Mr. Cantor has been a steadfast supporter of Israel, an issue important to Jews and Christian conservatives alike. But Jews in the Richmond area appear divided on him. Jewish Democrats are angry because he has stood in the way of a comprehensive immigration overhaul — an issue that, paradoxically, helped cost him his job, when Mr. Brat attacked him for supporting legal residency for young people brought here illegally.
Nancy Belleman, who is active in Jewish affairs in Richmond, said she viewed Mr. Cantor with a mix of “pride and disappointment.” She said she and some other Jewish Democrats had long wished that Mr. Cantor would be voted out of office. Of Mr. Brat’s victory, she said, “It goes under the banner of, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ ”