When Thomas Bliley decided to retire in 2000, he made it clear that he wanted his former intern to succeed him in representing Virginia’s heavily white and Republican Seventh Congressional District, a position once occupied by James Madison.
The primary was marred by some thinly veiled anti-Semitism in the form of calls to Republican households in the district emphasizing that Cantor’s opponent, Stephen Martin, an evangelical state senator, was “the only Christian” in the race. Martin denied having anything to do with the calls, which were made by a group known as Faith and Family Alliance, with which some of his campaign staff members were associated. But Martin did make Cantor’s family wealth an issue, noting that, unlike Cantor, he wasn’t from “a wealthy family” and didn’t have “the support of a well-oiled machine.” In the end, Cantor won the primary by a razor-thin margin of 264 votes, then went on to crush his Democratic opponent with 67 percent of the vote.
In the ensuing years, Cantor has won re-election by sizeable majorities, and, given the racial and political makeup of the district, it is likely that he will be able to defend it until he draws his last breath or moves on to other, presumably bigger things. As Bob Holsworth, the former director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, puts it, “This is a dream district for a Republican. It’s yours for life.”
As a congressman, Cantor has been notable not for his skills as a legislator, but for his rapid ascension within the GOP hierarchy. He entered Congress at the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency, when the dominance of the Republican Party that began under Reagan was already on the wane. The House GOP leadership no longer had the comfortable majority that had powered former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s mid-1990s “Republican Revolution.” Over the next eight years, it would become harder for Republicans to hang on to their seats due to the Iraq War, the declining economy and an increasingly unpopular Republican president.
Corruption thinned the ranks, too, inadvertently fueling Cantor’s rise. But he did have a brush with Jack Abramoff, the now jailed lobbyist, and hurriedly donated $10,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff to charity. Democrats touted the fact that the lobbyist hosted a fundraiser for Cantor at his Washington kosher deli, Stacks. Once the scandal broke, Cantor had to suffer the further embarrassment of having had a menu item—the Eric Cantor Tuna Sandwich—named by Abramoff in his honor.