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Did the Pro-Israel Lobby Contribute to Eric Cantor’s Defeat?

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News sites throughout the US — and Israel — are still displaying shock over the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by a Tea Party challenger in Virginia’s June 11 primary. The GOP leader was widely expected to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House of Representatives within the next 3 years; hardly anyone predicted his loss to the political newcomer, Dave Brat. Cantor is the first Majority Leader since 1899 to fail renomination by his party.

Cantor’s defeat will have widespread repercussions for US domestic politics, epitomizing the growing fissure in the Republican party between mainstream center-right Republicans and the Tea Party. Cantor himself danced awkwardly between the two, blurring their boundary. But nothing in Cantor’s stated positions or House votes on social and economic issues distinguishes him from other conservative Republicans.

Cantor was the sole Jewish Republican in the House of Representatives during his 7 terms in office, putting him on the very short list of the Jewish members of Congress who have found a political home within the GOP. There are currently no other Republican Jews in the Senate, so Cantor’s departure from the House will mean that there won’t be a single Jewish Republican in either chamber of Congress. In the113th Congress, 21 Democrats in the House and 11 in the Senate are Jewish, as is 1 Independent senator. This will be rather awkward for the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which has not only been arguing for three decades that American Jews are abandoning their traditional loyalty to the Democratic party and increasingly identifying as Republican, but also that Jewish interests are better served by Republicans. Cantor was the RJC’s poster boy.

Indeed, here’s what RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks had to say shortly after Cantor’s resounding defeat:

We are disappointed that our friend Eric Cantor lost his primary race tonight, but we are proud of his many, many accomplishments in Congress…Eric has been an important pro-Israel voice in the House and a leader on security issues, including Iran sanctions. We deeply appreciate his efforts to keep our country secure and to support our allies around the world.

 

Although support for pro-Israel and anti-Iran legislation has been overwhelmingly bipartisan, Cantor has played a unique role on the GOP side of the aisle. Alexander Burns of Politico points out:

[W]ith Cantor’s defeat, there’s no longer a point man to help organize trips to Israel for junior GOP lawmakers, as Cantor routinely did. Jewish nonprofits and advocacy groups have no other natural person in leadership to look to for a sympathetic ear. No other Republican lawmaker can claim to have precisely the same relationship with gaming billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a primary benefactor of both the Republican Party and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

 

Cantor reportedly spent more than $5 million on his re-election campaign, while his opponent, an Economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, spent only $122,000. With big bucks backing him, Cantor seemed to have little to fear from a political novice supported by the Tea Party. “Brat’s campaign portrayed Cantor as a creature of Washington and an ally of special interests, particularly those representing the financial industry,” writes Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Cantor’s top three campaign contributors for the 2014 cycle were the Blackstone Group, Scoggin Capital Management, and Goldman Sachs.

The New Jersey based pro-Israel political action group NORPAC was also among the major contributors to Cantor’s campaign committee, though Cohn seems to have overlooked this. Ranking #9 on Cantor’s list of top donors, NORPAC had bundled $24,560 from pro-Cantor contributors in the 2014 election cycle, about $2000 less than Goldman Sachs’ $26,600.

AIPAC, the much larger and better known pro-Israel lobbying group, does not donate to candidates or bundle campaign contributions. But the campaign contributions of AIPAC’s presidents and individual activists can be documented, and they can serve as a bellwether of AIPAC’s organizational support. Until recently, AIPAC presidents personally contributed mostly to pro-Israel Democrats running in national elections, Jewish or not, and to the small number of Jewish Republicans then in the House and Senate. While AIPAC has tended to favor incumbents, it has also supported the challengers of candidates running for re-election whose positions were deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel. Since joining AIPAC ‘s Board roughly a decade ago, Michael Kassen has been extending his own campaign contributions to some of the most conservative Republican members of Congress — including Ed Royce, Virginia Foxx, and Ted Cruz— whose domestic policies are sharply at odds with those held by center-to-liberal Jewish Americans. Kassen became president of the organization in 2012 and AIPAC’s Chairman of the Board in 2014.

In a twist of irony, by contributing to the Tea Party’s increasing hold on Congress — as long as candidates’ stated support for Israel was loud and clear — pro-Israel donors like Kassen may have inadvertently contributed to a political climate conducive to the defeat of their single greatest success story, Eric Cantor.

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel.

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