Eric Cantor has what’s known as a sure thing.
His congressional district, Virginia’s 7th, is considered one of the top two most Republican-leaning districts in the state.
Despite sharing GOP affiliation with a president with historically low approval ratings, Rep. Cantor still wins elections with 70 percent of the vote, give or take a few points.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Cantor, who served in Virginia’s House of Delegates for eight years, kicked off his national career when Rep. Tom Bliley decided in early 2000 to retire.
Bliley’s decision was a surprise to most, and the Cantor team rushed to set up a rally at the old Richmond Hyatt to announce his candidacy — a mere three days after Bliley’s announcement. Ray Allen Jr., a longtime friend and political adviser to Cantor, remembers the urgency about Cantor making the first move — the seat was the object of desire for many Republican pols because of its near-untouchability by Democrats.
The real competition would be in the Republican primary — particularly in 2000, when the Democrats didn’t even mount a candidate in the general election.
As Allen scurried to hire Cantor’s campaign staff, state Sen. Steve Martin, a fellow Republican, announced his bid for the seat. It promised to be a close race, with Cantor’s popular base in Henrico and Martin’s strength in his home county, Chesterfield.
Both Martin and Cantor were “enormously well-liked, with big-time organizations, big followings and almost identical voting records” in the General Assembly, says Chris LaCivita, former executive director of the state’s Republican Party and strategist for the Swift Boat Veterans in the 2004 presidential race. “It really came down to tactics. He and Steve — they basically believed in the same things.”
“From that day until the primary, everybody [worked] 60, 70, 80 hours a week,” Allen recalls. “Eric never slept.”
There were a few barbs back and forth — rising to the level of a “whisper campaign” run by some of Martin’s workers (although without the candidate’s knowledge, according to LaCivita) that attacked Cantor for being Jewish. Martin is Christian.
“It’s a dirty trick,” LaCivita says of the whisper campaign, and was a “stupid” miscalculation of Richmond voters’ mindsets. Cantor won by a margin of 264 votes, “probably one of Richmond’s most contested elections in recent memory,” LaCivita notes.
Among Cantor’s supporters in 2000, surprisingly, was Democrat Jim Nachman, who ran against Cantor in November 2006. Like everyone else, he figured the district would go Republican in 2000. Nachman had faith that Cantor would be a better representative than Martin, so he worked the polls for him at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church. “I thought he would be less of a right-wing conservative,” Nachman says. “Unfortunately, I’m thinking I was wrong. It wasn’t like there was any Democratic candidate.”
That was the last time Cantor had a moment of suspense in an election — he has since handily defeated his Democratic opponents: former Democratic congressman Ben Jones (“Cooter” from Dukes of Hazzard), Brad Blanton and Nachman, and the common wisdom is that he can keep his seat as long as he wants it.
The trim 44-year-old congressman doesn’t draw many political comparisons to John Edwards, but like the Democratic presidential candidate, Cantor rarely has a hair out of place and looks a decade younger than he is. In one concession to age, he started wearing glasses during law school at the College of William & Mary and now almost never takes them off. His wife, Diana, says he looks the same as he did two decades ago, except he wears more suits.
Cantor is known as a workhorse and the guy who speaks to all the congressional staffers, no matter how fresh their college diplomas. At the other end of the spectrum, he gets calls on his cell (once while furniture shopping at Haynes) from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and has weekly visits with the president — something the congressman still hasn’t gotten used to.
Every time he enters the Oval Office with other members of Republican leadership — President Bush often calls him by his last name — Cantor says he has to pinch himself.
His close affiliation with the president has drawn notice from both friends and critics alike. Cantor has voted with his Republican colleagues 88.6 percent of the time this past session and has been a steadfast supporter of President Bush on most issues since his election to Congress. Cantor’s views on the war are similar to those of the president’s, although even in his home district he notes some shifting of opinion:
“I do sense a little bit of loss of confidence in the direction in which we’re heading,” he says of his constituents, “but look, the long-term strategic interests of our country are at stake. It’s not easy, but we’ve got to hang in there and deliver the message that we’re not an empire-builder. We are — in this country — about freedom and about being safe at home. If we weren’t fighting over there, we’d be fighting here, the terrorists.”
He has differed from the president on immigration reform, like others in the Republican Party, and has opposed the renewal of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.
“Education belongs closer to the family,” Cantor says, while pointing to the education policy’s Democratic champion. “Ted Kennedy is the prime driver of this bill. That makes me kind of nervous.”
Despite his status in the Republican leadership, Cantor leaves the fiery rhetoric mostly to others. He directs the occasional zinger at Democrats — notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who, he wrote in a National Review op-ed in April, has “become so drunk with grandiose visions of deposing Bush” that she chose to meet with “Syrian dictator and terror-sponsor Bashar Al-Assad.”
But the barb backfired after it was revealed that five Republicans went to Damascus three days before Pelosi — including fellow Virginian Rep. Frank Wolf. He and two other GOP congressmen also met with Al-Assad.
Cantor’s reputation instead is largely built on his work ethic, as well as his willingness to talk with anyone, no matter the job title or politics.
When Cantor was a freshman congressman, he was in another representative’s office and was chatting with the receptionist, a recent University of Richmond graduate. He was catching her up on a chance meeting he had had with one of her professors, Allen says. “That’s just him. He remembers all the connections. That’s why he’s so successful up there, because so many of them are arrogant. They don’t even notice the staff.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who met Cantor as a freshman member of Congress in 2001, says he is “respected in all corners” as a consensus builder. “In an era of real viciousness, he’s a sea of tranquility,” Luntz adds. “Without Eric Cantor, the Republican Party is lost in the wilderness.”
On the Hill, Cantor has two jobs and two offices. He spends most of his time in the office with the better view — the office of the chief deputy Republican whip, an office he was appointed to in 2002, to the surprise of many in Washington because of Cantor’s lack of seniority. A second-term congressman, Cantor was one of 35 deputy whips for the party. A whip is a kind of wrangler, making sure the votes are there to pass a bill favored by the party’s leadership.
After Rep. Tom DeLay’s resignation as House majority leader last January in the wake of scandal, leaving the possibility of multiple open leadership seats, Cantor marshaled support among fellow House members in his bid to become whip. Rep. Roy Blunt, the majority whip who appointed Cantor chief deputy whip, was vying for the majority leader post. Blunt ultimately lost out to Rep. John Boehner, though he kept his seat as whip.
Cantor’s name was bandied about again last fall as the possible minority whip, after his party lost control of the House and Senate. “A small but aggressive group” of House Republicans, as characterized by the Hill newspaper Roll Call, wanted Cantor to bypass Blunt, the logical front-runner. But the idea never got much past the rumor stage, and Blunt again maintained his role as party whip.
A third job that takes up plenty of Cantor’s time is fundraising. The National Republican Congressional Committee, with Cantor serving as fundraising chairman, raised more than $30 million for GOP candidates last year, almost doubling its $17.5 million goal. Just as he does in his capacity as chief deputy whip, Cantor works the phones, talking and listening, remembering the details.
Neither he nor family members will discuss his future political goals. A career on the Hill — perhaps a Senate run if Sen. John Warner retires (Warner staffers say the senior senator may make an announcement of his plans this month) — appears to be Cantor’s likely plan, but he isn’t saying.
“If God really does exist,” pollster Luntz says, “Eric Cantor will become the speaker of the House.”
The Abramoff Sandwich
Despite his popularity on the Hill, Cantor has his detractors — mainly Democrats and bloggers who have called him: “the No. 1 nut in the House of Representatives,” “another Republican who hates our system of government,” and “the lapdog of his party.”
Cantor aide Stacey Johnson responds with kudos from other bloggers: “Eric Cantor gets it — and as a member of the Republican leadership, is uniquely positioned to put the best ideas into action,” “He thinks completely outside of the box and comes up with something never before even attempted in Washington, D.C.,” and “Cantor continues to lead.”
Jim Nachman, Cantor’s Democratic opponent in last year’s election, has a lot in common with Cantor on paper — the two men, who grew up only miles apart in the Richmond suburbs, belong to the same Masonic lodge and are both from politically active Jewish families.
But Nachman, who gained 35 percent of the vote last fall — more than any previous Democratic opponent — says his views are diametrically opposed to Cantor’s, with the significant exception of his pro-Israel sentiments.
“I call Eric an automatron,” says Nachman, who is mulling a second run. “He’s a tool of the Republican Party. … He has very little independent thought or independent action. He basically does what’s politically expedient.”
Johnson responds: “The people of the 7th District have a dim view of Mr. Nachman’s brand of harsh, negative campaigning. The result was 65 [percent of the vote] to 35.”
The only whiff of scandal around Cantor has been his association with DeLay, aka “The Hammer,” who as House majority leader was a good friend for any up-and-coming Republican to have.
DeLay was forced to resign from his leadership post and later give up on a run for his seat in Congress representing Houston after getting caught up in twin scandals involving campaign-finance violations and lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s widespread fraud against Native American tribes and bribery of elected officials.
Like several other Republicans, including President Bush, Cantor received campaign donations from Abramoff, which he donated to charity after indictments came down against the lobbyist in 2005. Cantor was never mixed up in the criminal or ethics investigations, but one embarrassing bit of trivia — an “Eric Cantor” sandwich on the menu at Abramoff’s kosher deli in Washington — appeared during the scandal. The sandwich, by the way, was roast beef on challah bread.
Cantor was a staunch defender of DeLay even when things started to look pretty bad, and he still donated money to the campaign of Ohio Rep. Bob Ney (author of the “freedom fries” mandate on congressional menus) after allegations arose that Ney received gifts from Abramoff in exchange for political favors. Ney later resigned his seat and pleaded guilty to conspiracy and false-statement charges.
Cantor keeps a bit more distance now from such controversial figures, noting that he didn’t see Tom DeLay during a recent visit to the Hill that coincided with DeLay’s book tour.
“DeLay discovered him,” Luntz says, “but [Cantor] is his own man.”
Part of Cantor’s cachet, though, comes from his family, a fixture in Richmond’s Republican and business circles.
People remember two things about the Republican primary on the night of Sept. 5, 1991, in Tucker High School’s gym — it was sweltering, and Eric Cantor’s mom brought club sandwiches.
The free sandwiches may not have been the deciding factor in the 28-year-old political novice’s win of the Republican nomination for the 73rd District seat in the House of Delegates. But 16 years later, Henrico Republicans still remember that bit of foresight.
As a young businessman facing two opponents nearly twice his age for the vacant General Assembly post, Cantor didn’t even have the backing of the incumbent, Walter A. Stosch, for whom he worked as a legislative assistant in 1985. Stosch, who did support Cantor when he ran for Congress, doesn’t remember why, although it may have had something to do with Cantor’s youth, he says.
The Cantor name was widely known, thanks to the stewardship of Eric’s father, Eddie Cantor, as 3rd District Republican chairman. The family, which hailed from the former Soviet Union, got started in Richmond as grocery-store owners in Church Hill and Jackson Ward.
Determination and hard work were hallmarks of the Cantor family, part of a tiny community of Richmond Jews when they first came here in the 1930s. Having lost their father as children, brothers Eddie and Bobby Cantor lived over one of the family’s grocery stores with their mother. They attended state colleges, graduated early and started their own law firm, Cantor and Cantor, still in practice today. The firm specializes in real estate and is associated with TrustMor Mortgage Company, led by Eric’s brother, Paul Cantor.
Moving to the affluent West End in the early 1960s, Eddie and his wife, Mary Lee, who came from the Washington, D.C., metro area, had three sons: Stuart, Eric and Paul. As students at the private Collegiate School and avid horseback riders, the boys had a comfortable upbringing.
As a father, “my husband was fairly strict and had standards to live by,” Mary Lee Cantor says.
“My father — he grew up without a father — so how did he really know how to be a father? But he did pretty good,” Eric notes. “Maybe he spoiled us a little bit too much, but he instilled in us a work ethic and a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. And certainly as a lawyer, [he] influenced me to go to law school and really understand what the legal system in this country is all about.”
The family’s Jewish faith also was important; Hebrew school was required in the Cantor household, and the boys all had bar mitzvahs when they turned 13. “Eric had a nice voice, so he could chant,” his mother remembers.
There were few Jews at Collegiate or in Richmond in general, she says, adding, “I don’t think it was ever an issue [for her sons]. They can admire the lights and the Christmas music.”
Eric was popular at school, his friend Trib Sutton remembers. “He had an ability to get along with everybody.” He was never president of the class, and although he played tennis on the JV boys’ team, he wasn’t a jock. Though considered smart, he wasn’t part of “the brain section of the school.”
“He was a hair dude,” Sutton says. “He always looked put together. That was not just for the yearbook.” Eric also managed to get cheerleaders and other good-looking girls to go out with him in high school, perhaps in part because he had a car, “a Monte Carlo or something,” Sutton recalls. “He was smooth, kind of behind-the-scenes smooth.”
At home, politics was the constant, during dinner conversation and at other times. Eddie Cantor got Eric involved in canvassing for Dick Obenshain’s Senate run in 1978, which ended tragically when Obenshain perished in a plane crash during a campaign trip. Mary Lee Cantor remembers taking her sons out to the polls, even in freezing weather, to hand out ballots for Republican candidates.
Cantor’s first exposure to Washington politics took place at George Washington University, where he served as Rep. Tom Bliley’s driver on Capitol Hill. Bliley says he saw a glimmer of the future politician in the college student, a sharp young man who graduated in three years.
“I really didn’t lack for much,” Eric says. “And now, looking back as a parent, maybe I was too spoiled. But really I think it was a product of the American dream.”
Man of Faith
Perhaps best known as the only Jewish Republican in the House, Cantor made headlines for striking back at national Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean in 2005 for calling the GOP a “white, Christian party.” He’s been the subject of profiles in Jewish publications and attends synagogue regularly, but Cantor doesn’t present his faith for public consumption the way some politicians do.
“Eric is really a person who is of deep faith,” his wife, Diana, says. “I think his faith guides his moral compass.” Being a Jew, especially in Richmond, has opened his eyes to what freedom of religion really means, she adds.
Collegiate had very few Jews when Eric and his brothers went there in the 1970s and ’80s, and even now, his children are among a small minority in the public schools they attend in the far West End.
The greatest evidence of his faith’s impact on his political career is his support of Israel. Cantor has sponsored legislation to cut off all U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and to Palestinians in general, until they stop excavating Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He has also traveled on the dime of pro-Israel groups.
No Time to Breathe
Whether Cantor is in his district, which extends from rural Page County in the north to Chesterfield County’s suburbs, or in Washington, every public moment is scheduled. If it’s not a meet-and-greet, a press conference, a vote or a 15-minute phone conference, Cantor’s involved in some other kind of legislative work.
He rarely eats at the breakfast and lunch meetings where he has speaking engagements — Cantor keeps modified kosher and is one of only a few U.S. congressmen who diligently avoids pork, at least in a literal sense. Driving around Richmond in a hybrid SUV, often guided by a GPS system, Cantor grabs coffee at a McDonald’s near the Richmond International Raceway after a Rotary Club breakfast meeting. His wife, Diana, says he often eats at home to avoid non-kosher meats.
His manner is quieter away from the podium, and conversation is often punctuated with calls to and from his wife and other family members. Staffers, based in his home office in Glen Allen and on the Hill, click away at their BlackBerries. Cantor asks Diana which block is best for him to pick her up for their appointment at the Capitol of Virginia.
Logistics dominate a typical April day in the 7th district: Lunch at Comfort with Mayor Doug Wilder, a question-and-answer period with Chesterfield County fourth-graders, filming a public-service announcement with his wife, as well-known as her husband through her tenure as executive director of the Virginia College Savings Plan. (This summer, Diana Cantor announced she was leaving after 11 years to work for New York Private Bank & Trust, but will remain with the college savings plan until a successor is found.)
Since the Democrats’ takeover this year, he spends more time in Washington, with votes scheduled — but not always taking place — five days a week instead of three or four days a week, under the Republican regime. The change means less time spent with constituents, Cantor notes. “We’re up there, but we’re not working as much as we did.” Instead of voting on the floor, he spends time in committee or on the phone.
The Home Front
Cantor comes back to Richmond as often as he can, even if it’s only overnight to see his wife and three children — sons Evan, 16, and Michael, 12, and 14-year-old daughter Jenna. Michael’s the family golf champ, and Evan has a growing interest in social studies. Jenna, though, seems the most likely to follow in her dad’s footsteps — Condoleezza Rice is her “American Idol,” Diana says, and she takes a lot of interest in the progress of her father’s bills.
One night during Passover, a typical family scene: “We get home, probably around quarter to 10,” Eric recalls. “Mikey, Evan and I are sitting around the table downstairs. I’m on my laptop, they’re doing their homework. Jenna, of course, claims she had none, so Diana’s after her to clean her room. It’s amazing how many times she has to clean her room. I just don’t get it. It’s like World War III to get her to clean her room.”
Eric finally went to bed around 1:15 or 1:30 a.m., his elder son still up doing homework.
Diana’s mother also lives with the family in their Wyndham home, an agreement the couple made when Eric decided to run for Congress in 2001.
Diana was going to need help with the household with Eric in Washington, so her mother moved up from Florida. Despite differing politics (her mother was active in Democratic causes), Eric and his mother-in-law get along well, Diana says, and the living arrangement gives him perspective on senior-citizen issues, like prescription drug costs.
Although family conversation is often about everyday matters like the kids’ homework and activities, politics are a common topic, and unanimity is rare.
“It’s never that he hasn’t heard the other side,” notes Diana, who is pro-choice and supports stem-cell research, unlike her husband. “Sometimes we talk about, sometimes we yell about it.” Still, she praises his studiousness, even when they don’t agree, and adds: “He’s the one who casts the vote.”
A Political Marriage
In Diana, Eric Cantor has found an astute political partner: a funny and smart woman. He notes that he wisely leaves their children’s homework questions up to his wife.
When they met on a blind date with another couple in a SoHo restaurant, Diana needed some convincing of Eric’s maturity. She was 31, the holder of law and business degrees and an important investment job at Goldman Sachs. He, on the other hand, was a 25-year-old graduate student at Columbia University. And having lost her father three weeks earlier, Diana was not really in the mood for romance.
She remembers marveling that Eric rose to his feet when she came to the table and again when she stood up. Nonetheless, she doubted anything would come of the date.
And for a while, it looked like there would be only that one date. Eric went out of town on winter break; Diana was traveling and typically working until 10 or 11 p.m. on Wall Street, but he kept calling — and most importantly to Diana, keeping his word by calling when he said he would.
Things took a shift during a date in January — after a late night at work, they met at a jazz club and had an all-night conversation.
“And after that, it was pretty quick,” Diana remembers. By April, they were engaged, after he proposed to her during a trip to England’s countryside. In November 1989, they were wed at Richmond’s Temple Beth-El.
Marrying Eric meant moving to Richmond and, soon enough, becoming part of a political couple. Winning the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates seat in western Henrico basically meant winning the election — Cantor went unopposed in every election but one.
And after overcoming Steve Martin in the 2000 primary, Cantor’s seat in Congress has remained safe. Some politicians would get overly comfortable in this position, but then something like the George Allen implosion happens.
LaCivita, who advised Allen’s campaign, thinks it’s unlikely this will happen to Cantor, but he notes that “you can never say never in politics. Nobody is beyond the wrath of the voters. Who’s to say some loaded guy doesn’t show up with 10 million dollars and go after Eric?”
That said, there doesn’t appear to be any “loaded guy” looming in the 7th district. “Eric Cantor can basically go where Eric Cantor wants to go,” LaCivita says. “If Eric Cantor wants to be speaker of the House, he can do it. I think the sky’s the limit.”