A few weeks after Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia was elected to a second term in the House of Representatives in 2002, he got a phone call from Roy Blunt, the Republican whip and third-ranking member of the House leadership. Cantor figured his wish had come true and he was getting a seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Before he ran for Congress, he helped run the family's real estate development firm in Richmond and his chief policy interest was in taxes and financial affairs, precisely what the committee deals with.
But Blunt had a different offer, one that would lift Cantor from obscurity as a Republican backbencher to a leadership position in the House. The job Blunt had in mind was chief deputy whip, the number four position in the Republican chain of command. Cantor was stunned at the offer and said he'd have to consult his wife. But it was all but certain he'd say yes, he told Blunt. And he soon did.
Cantor, 44, is energetic, popular, and respected--the attributes necessary for congressional leadership. As well as he's done, Cantor could have climbed even further in the Republican hierarchy by now. Had he challenged Blunt for whip last fall, he probably would have won. Instead, by doing the honorable thing and aggressively supporting his mentor, Cantor guaranteed Blunt's reelection.
Cantor's ascent seems inevitable. He is likely to become the top Republican in the House--which means speaker, if Republicans regain control--when the current leaders, John Boehner and Blunt, step down. That is, if he stays in the House.
The retirement of Republican John Warner has created an open Senate seat in Virginia. Democrat Mark Warner, a well-liked ex-governor, is the favorite over either of the two likely Republican candidates, Northern Virginia congressman Tom Davis and former governor Jim Gilmore. The Warner camp is reported to have conducted a poll showing Cantor as Warner's strongest opponent and Republican officials have talked to him about running. Cantor says he has no intention of seeking the Senate seat, but he hasn't entirely ruled it out.
Should Cantor run, it would be an enormous loss to House Republicans. The party has an impressive group of young guns (members under 45) and, fortunately for Republicans, their ranks weren't depleted in the disastrous 2006 election. Of the group, Cantor is furthest along the leadership track. To use a sports analogy, he's the most valuable player.
Adam Putnam, 33, of Florida is another young gun on the rise. He's chairman of the Republican conference and a potential rival of Cantor for a top leadership post. But Putnam is the protégé of ex-Speaker Denny Hastert, who is retiring, and Cantor has the edge. Cantor, by the way, is the only Jewish Republican in the House.
In the leadership race last fall, Cantor's loyalty to Blunt was a matter of obligation. Cantor hadn't been the choice of then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Hastert when Blunt picked him as deputy whip in 2002. DeLay wanted Blunt to name Todd Tiahrt of Kansas. (Kay Granger of Texas and Mike Rogers of Michigan were also campaigning for the post.)
Soon after he got to Washington, Cantor had sought out Blunt and became a confidant and a member of the whip team. "Roy was a guy I could always turn to," Cantor says. He worked closely with Blunt's senior aides, Mildred Webber and Greg Hartley, who became admirers of Cantor. "He's so humble," says Webber. "He's not high and mighty. And he's a very good listener. He tries to put the members' interests first."
When DeLay resigned from Congress in spring 2006, Blunt and Boehner competed to replace him. Since Blunt had a good chance of winning, Cantor quickly sized up his chances to succeed him as whip. Roughly two-thirds of House Republicans indicated they'd support him. But Blunt lost to Boehner and stayed in the whip's job.
After Democrats captured the House last November, Hastert stepped down as Republican leader and both Boehner and Blunt faced challenges from disgruntled members. Cantor was pressured to run against Blunt. Several House Republicans, including Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and Devin Nunes of California, openly endorsed him. Even Boehner urged him to run, insisting that Cantor had no obligation to back Blunt. Cantor, however, felt he did. Boehner still would like to see Cantor as whip.
Cantor's interest in politics came from his father, Eddie, who'd grown up on the second floor of the family grocery store and built both a law practice and real estate firm in Richmond. Eddie Cantor was a close friend of Dick Obenshain, a Republican leader as the party grew rapidly in Virginia in the 1970s. The elder Cantor was treasurer of the Reagan campaign in Virginia in 1980.
As a freshman at George Washington University in 1981, Cantor worked as an intern for House Republican Tom Bliley of Virginia and was Bliley's driver in the 1982 campaign. After GW, Cantor got a law degree at William & Mary and a master's in real estate management from Columbia University. He met his wife, Diana, in New York, where she was working at Goldman Sachs.
She was a Democrat from Miami Beach and had lived in Greenwich Village for 10 years. Moving to Richmond was "a culture shock" for her, Cantor says. But she became a Republican and was appointed by Governor George Allen in 1996 to run the Virginia College Savings Plan.
Cantor spent eight years as a delegate in the Virginia legislature. Given his business background, he "gravitated toward the economic issues." In 2000, he ran to succeed Bliley in the House. With the endorsement of Bliley and the influential Richmond Times-Dispatch, Cantor was strongly favored to win the Republican nomination and the general election.
But late in the campaign, mysterious phone calls were made to Republican households noting that his chief opponent, Stephen Martin, was "the only Christian" in the race and that Cantor attended a synagogue. The Cantor campaign couldn't figure out the origin of the calls. Later it was discovered they were made by Faith and Family Alliance, a front group funded by lobbyist Jack Abramoff and run by two Virginia political consultants. Cantor won by only 263 votes, far less than expected. It was his only close election.
Cantor is a small-government conservative. "I don't think we came to Washington to fix everybody's problems," he says. He's a ferocious foe of tax hikes and has spearheaded opposition to raising the tax on so-called "carried interest" of hedge funds. He believes Republicans stumbled badly in recent years. "Our fiscal brand--we lost that," he says. "Sixty percent of America is with us in believing in a Main Street, common-sense conservatism." Yet Republicans often fail to connect with voters.
"We do a very poor job of selling our ideas," Cantor told me. "We've got to get better at connecting our solutions to the problems people face." Worse, many of their ideas are stale. "There's a tendency for those inside the Beltway to look at the established sources of ideas," chiefly the Washington think tanks, he argues. "I want to talk to people in the real world."
Cantor got one piece of advice from Bliley, his predecessor and the former chairman of the Commerce Committee. "Don't get on Commerce," Bliley said. "If you do, they'll hang that golden leaf on your head and you'll never get away from it." His point was, coming from Richmond, Cantor would be dubbed the tobacco industry's congressman and this would limit his advancement in the House.
He took that advice. Now, he's difficult to typecast as anything but a reform-minded conservative Republican with a lot of friends in the House and a bright future ahead of him.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.