Cantor walks fine line in bid for the whip job

When newly elected Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was wrestling three years ago with whom to choose as his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was not on his shortlist.

When newly elected Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was wrestling three years ago with whom to choose as his deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was not on his shortlist.

His chief of staff at the time, Gregg Hartley, decided to ask a staffer for then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who was familiar with the whip operation whom the aide could recommend as the most persistent, hardworking member of the whip team. The staffer instantly suggested Cantor, although he did not know why Hartley was asking. 

Blunt went on to stun his colleagues by choosing Cantor for the same job he and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had held before moving up the GOP food chain. 

It was an unconventional choice. Cantor, a freshman, had won a razor-thin primary victory in 2000. He was 39, intelligent, articulate and energetic.

Blunt also knew he would have to disappoint several members of the whip team who had their sights set on leadership, such as Reps. Todd Tiahrt (Kan.), Mike Rogers (Mich.) and Kay Granger (Texas).

But the choice seemed like a stroke of genius. Cantor had demonstrated a quiet work ethic and enthusiasm that made him stand out. Blunt also saw his age as an asset: Cantor would have time to move up the House GOP leadership ladder and not pose an immediate threat to Blunt’s own desire to become Speaker.

Cantor was also the only Jewish Republican in the House when the party was straining to translate its ardently pro-Israel message into votes and money from Jews, a group that has predominantly supported Democrats at the ballot box for generations.

In the intervening years, Cantor has proved he is up to the task of chief deputy whip. “He took his intellect and persistence and made up for that lack of experience,” a source close to Blunt said.

The solid fiscal conservative now finds himself in the awkward — albeit advantageous — position of demonstrating more political strength than the two men responsible for his advancement.

In recent days, DeLay has announced he would not try to reclaim the post of majority leader that he gave up when indicted in a campaign-finance case last fall and Blunt has been locked in a battle with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to replace DeLay in the No. 2 leadership job.

Cantor, meanwhile, announced late Monday that he had secured the support of 140 members in his bid for majority whip just hours after Rogers and Tiahrt launched their campaigns. The job would only become available if Blunt were to win his campaign for majority leader or to decide to relinquish the post while running for leader.

Some members say Cantor has less support than he and his staff claim, but few dispute that he is the most formidable candidate in the race, the man to beat.

A CONCILIATORY REPUTATION

How Cantor won colleagues’ hearts and minds is no mystery to those who have worked with him closely.

“I love his style,” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a fellow member of the Ways and Means Committee. “He’s very upbeat, always positive, always patient.”

“Eric has done a good job in maintaining trust among conservatives because he’s very sincere and very honest,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who also serves on the tax-writing panel.

Cantor’s reputation is the polar opposite of DeLay’s, who is notoriously forceful, even vengeful. Cantor is so diplomatic that he managed to serve as the intermediary between Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the irascible Ways and Means Committee chairman, and the leadership team and still remain above the fray.

“Thomas, in all of his bark, if you will, is a really bright guy, and he has a lot of respect in the leadership … and he’s quite an effective chairman,” Cantor said before the holiday recess. “I try to find some answers to the legitimate concerns that he raises. A lot of concerns are about timing.”

Despite those assets, Cantor is not immune to the money scandal roiling the GOP conference.

With Hastert and other House GOP leaders, he signed a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton on June 10, 2003, that helped tribal clients of Jack Abramoff, the now-disgraced lobbyist. Cantor also received $13,000 from Abramoff and his tribal clients in campaign contributions between 2001 and 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and held a fundraiser at Signatures, Abramoff’s restaurant.

Cantor spokesman Geoff Embler said his boss sent the letter to Norton at the request of the Speaker and another member whose district was directly affected by the potential casino.

“He signed that letter because it was consistent with his long-term opposition to the expansion of Indian casino gambling,” Embler said.

But Embler added that his decision to sign was in no way a favor for Abramoff, who used a 527 group to run phone banks and send mailings attacking Cantor during the primary in his first run for Congress.

“Cantor is the only candidate for leadership that Jack Abramoff and his gaming clients spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to beat,” Embler said.

Cantor’s support for DeLay, once an asset, could prove troublesome in his effort to become majority whip. Cantor has been one of DeLay’s most visible advocates, appearing at press conferences and on TV talk shows to defend him.

Cantor has also emulated DeLay’s unprecedented party-building fundraising prowess, which is now coming back to haunt the fallen leader. Cantor gave some $571,000 to fellow Republicans last year from his leadership PAC, more than any other House GOP leader gave to fellow Republicans and the party, according to politicalmoneyline.com.

HEART IN THE RSC

No one in the conference who was asked about Cantor would say anything negative on the record, and the worst anonymous criticism is that he is too young and inexperienced to be majority whip.

“He’s a little green still,” one prominent senior lawmaker ventured.

Cantor’s membership the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), which bucked leadership throughout 2005 on spending, helps his standing in the conference. The RSC, more than 100 members strong, is responsible for much of last year’s internal conference unrest over skyrocketing deficits and the proliferation of earmarks in appropriations bills.

Before the conference mustered support for a scaled-back budget-reconciliation bill late in December, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Blunt’s and Cantor’s futures were tied to passage of the bill. Even though it passed, Flake and Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) circulated a petition Friday calling for leadership elections after Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges. The petition’s success led to DeLay’s announcement Saturday that he would not try to make a comeback.

Flake predicted last month that it would be difficult for Cantor to survive a leadership fight, despite his conservative credentials.

“He was a member of the RSC before he was in leadership,” Flake said. “Certainly I think that’s where his heart is. But he is a member of this leadership team.”

Cantor has sought to remain loyal to Blunt while demonstrating independence and building a constituency all his own. Still, Cantor is backing Blunt for majority leader, even though they are not running as a team.

They cannot run as a ticket, some GOP leadership sources argued, because the position of majority whip is not open. House rules allow Blunt to keep the job while running for majority leader, but his decision so far to do so has prompted criticism.

“It’s a sign of weakness,” one GOP source said. “Who would want the majority-whip position if the conference won’t support [that person] for majority leader? Then you have to be the vote-counting team for the person who beat you.”

Another well-placed source said Blunt is simply playing by the rules and would not expect Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a potential dark horse in the race for majority leader, to give up his position as GOP Policy Committee chairman should he decide to enter the race.

Despite complaints that the whip team has faltered, Cantor argues that the House has emerged victorious on several tough votes in a tumultuous political environment.

“We’ve never been idle. We’ve constantly tried to find ways to thread the needle,” Cantor said.