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The Gentleman From Virginia: The Rise and Fall of Eric Cantor

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, hails not from the urban melting pot but from a Southern, explicitly Christian America

Allison Hoffman
February 08, 2011
(Alex Nabaum)
(Alex Nabaum)

Representative Eric Cantor, the six-term Virginia congressman, is not a brilliant strategist or a visionary policymaker. He is, however, a very good politician. At 47, he cuts a trim figure in his dark two-button suits, with a full head of black hair and a strong jaw line that comes across well on camera. He speaks in calm, measured tones with a butterscotch lilt that makes him sound extremely reasonable when he talks about contentious subjects, like repealing health-care reform or slashing the federal budget. When he wants to seem conspiratorial—I’m on your side—his left eyebrow goes up behind his thin black wire-frame glasses; when he wants to seem sincere, both eyebrows rise in unison, and three deep grooves appear on his forehead. When he wants to make it clear he really, really means what he’s saying, the ghost of a fourth line appears just below his hairline, and he chops at the air in front of him for added effect. His default setting is “serious.”

Last month, when the Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives and John Boehner was elected speaker, Cantor became majority leader, the second most powerful person in the chamber and the one tasked with driving the partisan agenda heading into the 2012 presidential campaign cycle. Cantor’s elevation, from minority whip, makes him the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history. As a Jewish politician, he is an anomaly: a Southern conservative and the sole Jewish Republican to be seated in Congress. (Indeed, he has held that distinction since April 2009, when former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter defected to the Democratic Party.) Unlike other moderate and conservative Jewish legislators—Specter, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, or even former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman—Cantor was raised far outside the urban, liberal milieu familiar to most American Jews. His congressional district, Virginia’s 7th, once belonged to Absalom Robertson, the father of televangelist Pat Robertson, and his hometown, Richmond, was once the capital of the Confederacy. In a place where religion permeates the public sphere, Cantor has succeeded by turning his Jewish identity from an ethnic distinction into a signal of the values and civic commitment he shares with his gentile constituents.

Cantor often describes himself as “a minority within a minority”—a Jew from the South, and a conservative Republican whose views are sharply at odds with those of the predominantly Democratic Jewish electorate—and this allows him to occasionally affect a self-deprecating, and sympathetic, underdog quality. He grew up in Richmond’s historic but tiny Jewish community, and in a solidly Republican household when Virginia was still Yellow Dog Democrat country. His parents sent him and his two brothers to the Collegiate School, a prestigious private academy that featured annual Christmas pageants, but they kept a kosher home. He was bar mitzvahed at the city’s main Conservative synagogue, where his own children also had their bar and bat mitzvahs. Cantor keeps kosher at work—his Democratic predecessor, Steny Hoyer, got him egg-salad sandwiches when they met for a rare bipartisan lunch in late January—and at home, where his mother-in-law supervises the kitchen. When I met Cantor in his new, eggnog-yellow office late last month, I asked him whether he would have preferred to grow up in a place where being Jewish wasn’t quite so exotic. “I think it’s given me a real appreciation—” he began, and then he paused. He looked directly at me and started again: “You know, we live in a Christian country.”

Since the beginning of the year, Cantor has become the de facto public face of a party that has grown steadily more religious and more suburban in the two decades since he began working his way up its ranks. In Young Guns, the conservative manifesto Cantor co-wrote last year with his House colleagues Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan, the congressman drew an explicit analogy between their churchgoing and his own synagogue attendance. “I pray on Saturday with a Southern accent,” Cantor wrote. “Paul and Kevin go to church on Sunday and talk to God without dropping their Gs.” What set him apart growing up—his distance from the heavily Jewish cities that now serve as metonyms for liberal elitism, his native ease with the Christian references so many Republican partisans use to define their political values—has become his passport into the heart of the GOP establishment. His position has been cemented by his reputation as a rainmaker for his colleagues and his party—$60 million in the 2008 election cycle, an estimated $10 million of which came from heavy-hitting Jewish donors across the country. His own campaign included donations from Republican casino mogul Sheldon Adelson to Chicago magnate Lester Crown, who was also a key Obama supporter the same year.

“A Jewish politician from Richmond is very different from a Jewish politician from the Upper West Side of Manhattan,” explained Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard editor who invented the “Young Guns” appellation. But there have been Jewish politicians from the South before—Democrats like Ben Erdreich, who was elected to Congress from Birmingham, Alabama, in 1982, and Norman Sisisky, who joined Virginia’s congressional delegation almost two decades before Cantor. Cantor is the first to emerge from a generation that grew up weaned on the red-blooded Republicanism of Reagan’s successful implementation of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. “Eric is certainly able to connect to a national Republican audience more than most Jewish politicians,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public-policy arm. “He’s a social conservative, a traditional Jewish person with conservative social mores.”

In a sense, Cantor is following a model successfully pioneered by earlier generations of Southern Jews who achieved prominence in city and state politics—men like Emanuel J. Evans, known as “Mutt,” who as mayor of Durham, North Carolina, from 1951 to 1963, took pains to make sure his campaign posters noted his synagogue presidency and his work on behalf of Israel bonds. “My father said, ‘People down here respect church work,’ ” explained Evans’ son, Eli, author of The Provincials: A History of Jews in the South. “This is the tone for really successful Southern politicians, and Cantor has that one down pat.”


The history of Jews in Richmond stretches back to the colonial era. The city had a small but well-rooted Sephardic community; its first synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, was established in 1789, the year George Washington was sworn in as president. As the city grew, it attracted an increasing number of Jews, including German Jews like Samuel and Judith Myers, whose son, Gustavus Myers, a lawyer and a trustee of the Reform Temple Beth Ahabah, served nearly 30 years on the city council, including 12 terms as mayor in the mid-19th century. Myers also played an instrumental role in encouraging his friend, the Louisiana senator Judah Benjamin, to take a prominent role in Jefferson Davis’ Confederate government—advice Myers gave because he believed that “Jews of high station reflected well in the eyes of both the Gentiles and other Jews by serving in visible office,” as Evans wrote in his biography of Benjamin. After the Civil War, it was a Jewish former cadet from Richmond, Moses Ezekiel, who won the commission to design the Confederate Soldiers’ Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Cantor’s family arrived in Richmond from Eastern Europe in the wave of Jewish immigration around the turn of the 20th century. His father, Eddie, grew up in downtown Jackson Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood known as “the Harlem of the South,” living above the grocery run by his widowed mother, Frances. Eddie was an overachiever determined to make his way up the civic ladder. He graduated from John Marshall, one of the city’s best public high schools, at 15, and went on to Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond law school before going into practice with his older brother, Robert. He met Mary Lee Hudes, a schoolteacher from Baltimore, on a blind date set up by one of her University of Maryland sorority sisters. “They needed short dates—Eddie was short, and so was I,” explained Mary Lee, whose Romanian-born father, an ardent Zionist, ran a furniture store. Eddie impressed her as a real Southern gentleman. (Eddie, now 78, is ill and wasn’t available for interviews.) “I had to go to the restroom, and this guy got up—he was like a jumping jack,” Mary Lee told me. “I had never seen such manners.”

Continue reading: Richmond Republicans, a mentor, and the youngest member of the state assembly. Or view as a single page.
Eric, the second of their three boys, was born June 6, 1963. At the time, Richmond was in the throes of integration, but life carried on as usual in the upscale West End, where the Cantors had settled. “I was in my own little Jewish world,” Mary Lee explained. With her mother-in-law, she opened a maternity store in a local strip mall, but her main focus was taking care of her sons. The family began keeping kosher. Mary Lee’s observant maiden aunt relocated from Baltimore and moved in nearby. They were active members of Temple Beth El, the city’s large Conservative synagogue, where Eddie had taught Sunday school before he got married.

A Jewish day school opened in Richmond in 1966, but Mary Lee pushed her husband to enroll the boys at Collegiate, where Richmond’s first-string Jewish families—like the Thalhimers, who owned the big department store downtown—sent their children. “Eddie was raised very poor,” Mary Lee told me. “His argument was that there’s only one type of society there, and he was concerned the boys were only going to see that society.” What didn’t worry her, she said, was the prospect of having them perform each year in the school’s Christmas pageant. “They didn’t do a lot of, excuse me, Christ-y things,” she explained. After she and her husband went to Israel for their 13th wedding anniversary, in 1972, Eric’s older brother, Stuart, did a slideshow presentation about the Jewish state for his third-grade class. “For Hanukkah I did latkes and a menorah, for Passover we’d bring matzoh,” said Mary Lee.

The boys’ extracurricular lives revolved around their Jewish activities. “They went to Hebrew school three times a week, and if they had Little League practice, they got to practice late,” Mary Lee told me. “They knew they were Jewish.” All three brothers joined Jewish youth groups like United Synagogue Youth and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. “He grew up like any Jewish kid in the mid-Atlantic South, doing the normal stuff everyone did,” recalled one childhood friend, who remembers going on Indian Guide overnight trips with Cantor and his father.

The one thing they did that few others did, though, was talk Republican politics. As the boys were growing up, their father became increasingly involved in civic affairs—and in the nascent Republican movement that was emerging in opposition to the Harry F. Byrd Democratic political machine, known simply as “The Organization,” which controlled Virginia for most of the 20th century. “Eddie was a Jewish Republican when there weren’t any Jewish Republicans in Richmond,” said Phil Cantor, a cousin. “You could easily say you didn’t know any Jewish Republicans other than Eddie Cantor.” As a Jew, he was barred from joining the silk-stocking Country Club of Virginia and the Commonwealth Club downtown, despite having grown wealthy from his real-estate dealings, but he was welcomed at the Virginia Masons’ Fraternal Lodge 53. As an outsider, he had little to lose, socially or in business, from bucking the Democratic hierarchy and everything to gain as conservative Dixiecrats drifted further away from their liberal Yankee brethren.

When the boys were little, Mary Lee made sure they waited until their father got home to sit down to supper—“no matter what time he got home from work,” Mary Lee said. “They’d say, ‘We’re hungry, why do we have to wait,’ but I’d have them do their homework instead, and we’d have discussions at the dinner table that Eddie would lead—politics, current events, sports, whatever questions they had.” When Eric was in high school, a friend of his father’s, Richard Obenshain, a fellow attorney, was a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. (Obenshain died in a plane crash before the general election and was replaced on the ballot by John Warner, the former Navy secretary then married to Elizabeth Taylor.) In 1980, Eddie, who was serving as state treasurer for the Reagan campaign, recruited Tom Bliley, Richmond’s Democratic former mayor, to make what turned out to be a successful run for Congress as a Republican. Bliley was a Catholic whose family ran the local funeral parlor and was happy to make common cause with Cantor. “We buried most of the Jews in Richmond, almost all of them, so I was well known in the Jewish community,” Bliley said. “Eddie and Mary Lee welcomed me with open arms and supported me in my bid for the nomination.” The family effort included Eric, who volunteered on the campaign. “They were like peas in a pod,” Bliley said of 17-year-old Eric and Eddie, who was a delegate to the 1980 Republican nominating convention in Detroit.

As a result, Eric Cantor never went through the archetypal reactionary experience of being “mugged by reality” that characterized an older generation of Jewish neoconservatives like Irving Kristol—and he didn’t forge his political ideas in the crucible of the College Republicans, where so many of his Reagan-era conservative cohort found their inspiration. As a freshman at George Washington University, in 1981, Cantor interned in Bliley’s Washington office, and the next year he was promoted to chauffeur, driving Bliley around during his re-election campaign. The two became “fast friends,” as Bliley put it, and remained close as his young protégé made his way through law school, at William & Mary. After passing the Virginia bar, in 1988, Cantor made a detour, moving up to New York for a year to do a master’s at Columbia in real-estate development. It was a culture shock, at least for his mother. “He had the cruddiest housing,” she told me. “It was across from Central Park, and that was the only nice thing about it. The wind was so bad in the winter he had to put towels around the windows to keep it out.”

But Cantor, then 25, nevertheless managed to tap into the city’s magical alchemy: While he was in New York, he fell in love. During our meeting in his office last month, he talked about courting the woman he would marry. A classmate set him up on a blind date with Diana Fine, a Miami Beach native who had gone to law school at New York University and was working at Goldman Sachs as a vice-president handling leveraged buyouts. “Just on a lark this friend introduced us, and that was it,” he told me, with a dreamy look, when we met last month—the only time I saw him break his reserved public persona. “Falling in love in New York City is a very cool thing.” He shook his head, and let out a deep, genuine sigh.

Diana, six years older than Cantor, was freshly grieving for her father, Ronald, who died of cancer in November 1988. When Cantor finished at Columbia, she agreed to return with him to Richmond, where they were married in 1989. “Middle ground,” Mary Lee said, with a laugh. “Eric had a job here, and she’d had enough of New York.” The joke at the wedding was that it was a mixed marriage: Diana came from a family with New York roots on both sides, and her grandmother, Mildred, who held a master’s in home economics from Columbia, was a well-known Democratic activist who was elected in 1979, at 72, to a term as Miami Beach commissioner.

All three Cantor brothers joined the family’s commercial real-estate business. Eric—the only one to follow their father to law school—was put to work handling routine legal transactions, including debt collections, according to Brett Zwerdling, a local bankruptcy attorney who remembers running into Cantor around the courthouse. But it quickly became clear that Eddie, who was then a district Republican committee chairman, had bigger plans for his middle son. In 1991, a few days short of his 28th birthday and with an infant son at home, Eric Cantor filed his candidacy for a vacant seat in the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of Virginia’s legislature. With help from his father and other Republican party activists who had watched him grow up, Cantor assiduously collected endorsements, and he beat his nearest primary challenger by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in a three-hour nominating contest held in a high-school gym—and called to order with a prayer invocation, according to an account in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. There were no Democratic challengers in the general election, and in 1992, Cantor became the youngest member of the state assembly.


Eight years later, Cantor would win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. But his ascent to Washington was almost stopped by a fellow Jewish Republican, the super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff—or at least that’s how the story came to be told in the wake of Abramoff’s conviction for conspiring to bribe senior members of Congress. What actually happened is more complicated.

Continue reading: “Virginia values,” personal religious ties, and “I want what I want.” Or view as a single page.
In 2000, Bliley, the congressman and Cantor’s patron, was set to lose his chairmanship of the powerful Commerce Committee under the Republican Majority’s term-limit plan. Instead, he decided to retire from Congress, and he anointed Cantor as his preferred successor. “I have advised all my former colleagues, when you get ready to retire, you pick the person you think is best to succeed you,” Bliley told me. “You go right in and get the best person elected—you don’t do this ‘good government’ thing and stay out of it.”

The district had been redrawn in 1990 to exclude heavily African-American central Richmond, which got its own de facto Democratic seat, and became a solidly Republican district that covered Richmond’s fast-growing West End, home to tobacco giant Philip Morris, and extended northwest toward the Appalachians. “It was like putting Brer Rabbit in the briar patch,” said Bliley. “I had to learn about agriculture—I think in my old district they grew more marijuana than anything else.” But the area is also capital-C Christian, saddled between Robertson’s 700 Club stronghold in Virginia Beach and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University compound in Lynchburg. Even at Richmond’s city limits, River Road swoops past the Country Club of Virginia, with its enormous American flag waving over the golf course. “There are probably as few Catholics in Richmond as there are Jewish people,” said Juanita Duggan, a former Philip Morris lobbyist who worked with both Bliley and Cantor. “So the fact that Mr. Cantor and Mr. Bliley teamed up together was a brilliant move on both of their parts.”

At the time, the neighboring district was still represented by Norman Sisisky, the first Jewish congressman elected from Virginia, who graduated from John Marshall High School a few years ahead of Eddie. Sisisky, who made his fortune as a Pepsi bottler in southern Virginia, was a conservative Democrat and a member of the Blue Dog caucus in the 1990s. “My dad voted Republican as often as Democratic,” Sisisky’s son, Mark, explained. “Republicans liked him because he was a businessman himself—he wasn’t a lawyer, and he’d made payroll in his life—and Democrats got him because he came from a poor background, and he was very close to the African-American community.”

But Cantor’s district was solidly Republican—so much so that local Democrats nearly failed to field a candidate in the general election. Cantor had been establishing himself as a pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-business Reaganite conservative. In his congressional primary, he picked up an endorsement from Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, who had been a supporter in Cantor’s first House of Delegates race, and poured more than $730,000 into the race, more than five times as much as his opponent, a state senator named Steve Martin. But Martin posed a serious challenge: He had the advantage of being a Baptist from a rural area, and he was a seasoned political scrapper who bragged that he was a graduate of “UHK”—the University of Hard Knocks. In the final week of the primary campaign mailers went out attacking Cantor with allegations that he had evaded taxes: “Millionaire lawyer Eric Cantor says he wants to cut your taxes—but he didn’t pay his own.” The mailers were paid for by the Faith and Family Alliance, a political interest group tied to former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, who also used the Alliance around the same time as a pass-through for checks from Abramoff that were connected to an effort to block an Internet-gambling ban. Martin, who remains in the Virginia state Senate, has spent a decade trying to get out from under the issue. “I was not aware of it and was quite bothered when I found out,” he told me on the phone in January. “I think Eric’s been doing very well.” (Abramoff threw a fundraiser for Cantor at his kosher deli and named a sandwich—roast beef on challah—after the congressman in 2003, two years before the scandal erupted.)

The mailers were also accompanied by a whisper campaign questioning Cantor’s allegiance to “Virginia values”—and promoting Martin as “the only Christian” in the race. In the end, Cantor won, but by a slim margin of 263 votes. “Some people don’t like him because he is a Jewish guy, but look, I’m thoroughbred German on both sides, and if anyone was going to dislike him for that, it would be me,” explained Oswald Gasser, a drawling 86-year-old Richmond political fixture and one of Cantor’s earliest allies, who still goes by his childhood nickname, Big Boy. “But everyone deserves to be represented. He goes to the Jewish church. I don’t because I’m a Baptist. It’s all right.” A few minutes later, he added, “Eric represents the whole country and he is a broad enough person to accomplish that.”

At the time, Cantor responded indignantly, telling a reporter, “It’s the year 2000”—a year in which Joe Lieberman ran for vice-president on the Democratic ticket. “The right to practice one’s religion is one of the things this country was founded upon,” he told Style Weekly, the Richmond alternative paper. “That whole issue is just repugnant.”

The affair exemplified the kind of genteel anti-Semitism Richmond’s Jewish community had long since learned to shrug off. “If you grow up here, it’s what you know,” Lee Krumbein, a furniture-store owner who is close with the Cantor family, told me. One prominent local Jewish philanthropist earnestly told me, “I don’t think it was so much anti-Semitic as a ‘stick with your own kind’ message. It’s no more anti-Semitic than us saying ‘vote for the Jew’ is anti-Christian.” And Jewish leaders weren’t shy about trying to turn out the insular Jewish community on Cantor’s behalf. Richard November, a developer who was at the time president of Richmond’s Jewish federation, sent out a letter to the federation’s mailing list urging them to support Cantor as a fellow Jew, even if they weren’t Republicans, because it would be good for the community, and good for Israel. “I caught some criticism for it, but it’s OK—I’ve caught criticism before,” November told me. “I am supportive of Eric and doubly so because he is Jewish.”

Cantor is relatively private about his personal religious ties. When he’s in Richmond for the weekend—which isn’t often now, given his travel schedule—he attends the Orthodox synagogue, Keneseth Beth Israel, along with his parents, his brothers, and their families. The congregation was established in 1856, and it used to occupy a former church building close to downtown; these days, it’s housed in a nondescript, 1970s-vintage building further west, in a residential neighborhood that fills on Saturdays with observant families pushing baby carriages and teenagers running to get to services just in time for kiddush lunch to start. Cantor’s older brother, Stuart, is on the board of the congregation and of Richmond’s sole Jewish day school; in 2002, Stuart and his wife, Joan, also helped sponsor the annual dinner of the One Israel Fund, which provides aid for Jewish families living in the West Bank. Cantor, whose photograph was recently featured opposite Hillary Clinton’s on AIPAC’s website, has been politically supportive of Israel, helping establish a trade liaison office in Virginia.

His extended family includes one cousin who now lives in Israel as a Messianic preacher and another, Daniel Cantor Wultz, who was killed in a 2006 terrorist attack in Tel Aviv while visiting his father’s Israeli relatives. But when I asked Cantor about being personally touched by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he responded with generalities. “Well, it’s a horrific thing to have happen to a family, and I try to visit with those cousins as often as I can,” said Cantor, who visited Wultz’s family on a trip to Florida in December. “I do think that incident did bring home to many people that there are enemies out there who will avenge their hatred by killing themselves and Israel happens to be on the front lines of the same war that we are in this country, and that’s a war being fought against the spread of radical Islam, and the terrorist threat that it carries.”

As a state legislator, Cantor sat on the board of the JCC and helped secure a state-owned former tobacco warehouse for the Virginia Holocaust Museum. His wife, who created Virginia’s state-run individual college-savings program and is now a partner at Alternative Investment Management, a New York money-management firm, chaired the Jewish federation’s investment committee in 2005. The Cantors’ address and home phone number are still listed in the annual directory published by Richmond’s Jewish community center. “To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think Congressman Cantor has ever tried to hide he’s a Jew,” said Marcus Weinstein, a local property mogul and generous Republican contributor after whom the city’s JCC is named. “It’s always in the papers. It’s never been an issue he’s tried to hide and he’s always been very much supported by the district.”


I want what I want when I want it: For his senior yearbook quote, Cantor chose a line from the libretto of a relatively obscure American operetta, Mlle. Modiste, written in 1905 by Henry Blossom. When I asked him about it, Cantor responded with a laugh. “I probably, at the time, I guess, it was a commentary on life in this country,” he told me. “I mean, you know, Americans are impatient, you know, they want to go after their dreams, and this is the place to do it.”

Cantor has been able to get what he wanted from his first day in Washington, when he pulled the top number in the freshman office lottery. In 2002, after Cantor won his second term, Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt, the minority whip, chose him to be chief deputy whip, the highest non-elected position in the House Republican leadership; from there, Cantor has steadily climbed the leadership ladder, rather than focusing on the intricate details that come with committee work. (He is a member of the House Ways and Means tax-setting committee.) Cantor surprised observers by declining to challenge Blunt outright after the Republican shellacking in 2006, but as Fred Barnes noted, “The honorable thing to do is not to run against the guy who picked you.”

Continue reading: good branding, Congress, and “the moral compass.” Or view as a single page.
In early 2009, a few days after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Cantor, then minority whip, was invited to a bipartisan White House meeting. Cantor was the lowest-ranking person in the room, but he was also enjoying his first moment of national exposure as a fierce opponent of the bank bailout and the TARP plan. He brought handouts listing his policy objectives for the new Congress. After some back and forth, Obama reportedly cut him off, saying, “Eric, I won.” (Cantor repeated the story in his book last year.) At this year’s State of the Union address, things were less clear: As majority leader, Cantor, wearing a bipartisan fuschia tie, walked into the House just a half-step behind Obama and remained in the frame as the president made his way down the aisle, shaking hands as Obama let them go. Earlier in the day, the Beltway blogs had run snarky items about how Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker turned minority leader, had turned down Cantor’s late invitation to sit together—he wound up sitting with his fellow Virginian, Democrat Bobby Scott—that made him look like the sad-sack left out at the end of musical chairs. But in the end, Cantor was the only member who got what amounted to a personal appeal from the president: Midway through the speech, when Obama raised the issue of health-care legislation, he stopped, looked Cantor’s way, and quipped, “Now, I’ve heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new health care law.” The pool camera stayed fixed on Cantor as the chamber erupted in laughter. Cantor cracked a satisfied smile: Yes, Mr. President—I won.

Early the next morning, when I arrived at Cantor’s plush office on the third floor of the Capitol, he was still full of buoyant energy. He came marching rapidly down the hallway fresh from a hit on CNBC’s Squawk Box, and as he approached, he asked, “Are you here to see me?” I said I was. He stuck out his hand and grabbed mine, without slowing down. “OK! See you in a second,” he said, and disappeared. An aide explained Cantor was taking his makeup off. A minute later, he reappeared, looking exactly the same. We went into his office and sat down on a pair of formal chairs, and his two press secretaries sat down on either side of him. I asked if he’d seen the footage of his entry the night before, and he coyly said he hadn’t yet, grinning broadly.

He knows that it’s good branding to be known as the only Jewish congressman in the new House majority—if nothing else, it gives him a monopoly of sorts. “It increased his influence a thousandfold,” said William Daroff, a lobbyist for the Jewish federation system. When he lends his name to events like a Capitol Hill screening of a new anti-Iran movie, Iranium, produced by the conservative Clarion Fund, “it just gives it much more of a hechsher,” Daroff said. But his efforts to combat earmarks and budget waste come before any ethnic solidarity: Jay Ipson, the head of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, told me Cantor had proven unwilling to secure federal grants for the organization he’d helped get up and running. “He was at one point thinking about getting us financial help from Washington, but then when the economy started looking not so good, he swore off any assistance for anybody,” explained Ipson, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania who is known for wearing a cowboy hat everywhere, including synagogue.

I remembered Ipson’s comment a few days later in Cantor’s office, where a red-white-and-blue-bordered placard labeled the “Cantor Rule” is prominently displayed on an end table next to his sofa. These cards, printed on faux-aged paper with a faint watermark of “We the People” are scattered on desks throughout Cantor’s new quarters. They read: “Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it … Why are WE doing it?”

“You know, my faith goes with me in everything I do,” Cantor told me when I asked about his sole Jewish-Republican status. He talked about his upbringing in a traditional Jewish home and his efforts to raise his children with strong Jewish identities. “You know, again, I don’t think you ever go far from sort of the moral compass that you were given when you were brought up in faith,” he said. “So I can only say that I grew up in a very active and vibrant Jewish community, and then a larger civic community in Richmond that didn’t happen to be Jewish also contributed to who I am and what kind of officeholder I hopefully am.”

Many Jewish politicians, when they find themselves speaking to Jewish audiences, find it tempting to toss off one-liners like they’re in the Catskills or drop other sorts of yiddishkeit. But, as one Richmond observer pointed out, Cantor “doesn’t come across as ethnic.” Instead, he pitches his affiliation as a religious one, just like a Catholic might: His model is not Joe Lieberman, but his mentor Tom Bliley. “We live in a country that is built on the Judeo-Christian traditions, but most important we are people that believe in religious freedom,” Cantor told me. “And I lived that. I was honored to have served in the Virginia House of Delegates, and I looked every day at the plaque on the wall, the marble etching on the wall in the House of Delegates chamber in Mr. Jefferson’s capital, of his Statute of Religious Freedom, that obviously was then built into the Bill of Rights.” He paused. “You know, when you live in a community in which Jews are in the minority, you also begin to understand the beauty of our framers and the Constitution and the fact that there is no state religion, nor should the state preclude anyone from practicing his or her faith. It goes back to sort of the equality that we thrive on.”

Cantor’s main task, these days, is to set up the legislative calendar in a way that maximally weakens the Obama Administration and improves the chances of the next Republican presidential nominee. At the moment, that means pushing for cuts in federal spending—and trying to cancel Obama’s health-care reform legislation. But almost no one who talks about Cantor fails to mention him as a potential future Jewish presidential candidate. “Republicans don’t have a lot of Jewish elected officials, so it’s hard to get people at that level,” said Tevi Troy, a senior White House aide in the George W. Bush administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “The conservative thing makes him kosher for the Republican Party, and the Jewish thing makes him kosher to a wider audience.”

Many of Cantor’s most ardent supporters aren’t Jewish. When John McCain called Richard Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, in the summer of 2008 looking for advice on who to pick as a running mate—at a time when Joe Lieberman, who campaigned for McCain, was being mentioned as a contender—Land suggested the Arizona senator look at Cantor, who was already doing Jewish outreach for the campaign. (The other person Land recommended in that call was Sarah Palin.) “Cantor would have helped tremendously in states which would be a very close race, in Virginia, obviously, but in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and he’s the only Republican in Congress who’s Jewish and pro-life,” said Land. “He stood out as a comer from the very beginning—he’s very bright, very energetic, very concerned about the issues we care about.” When I spoke to Juanita Duggan, the former Philip Morris lobbyist, she echoed Land’s comments and told me a story about spiriting Cantor into a Tax Foundation dinner when he was still in freshman orientation, after the 2000 election. “He knew just what to do,” Duggan said proudly. She joked, “I am the honorary chair of the Eric Cantor for President 2012 committee.” When I asked her why, she said a Jewish nominee would cement the idea of the GOP as “the pro-Israel party”—just as it would also ease the path of a Southern conservative to the White House.

“Having the first Jewish president be a Republican,” she said brightly, “would be a wonderful thing.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.