House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprising loss in the primaries is major national news – not the stuff of petty Jewish-world chatter. Then again, Cantor is currently the most senior Jewish representative in Congress, and he is also the only Jewish Republican representative in Congress. Thus, if you even remotely care about Jewish congressional representation, the Cantor defeat has meaning beyond the obvious ramifications discussed in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal articles.
The Cantor result forces us to change our House Jewish Projection. We now expect no more than 20 Jewish House Members to have a seat in the 2015-2016 term. This will be a twenty-year low for Jewish representation in Congress (our Senate Projection doesn't make things much better). And if up until yesterday we believed that the new situation is going to be the result of Democratic weakness – we have proved in the past that fluctuations in Jewish representation are tied to Democratic rise and decline – it is now the case that Jewish Republican representation, as low as it was to begin with, is also continuing its decline. There haven’t been any Republican Jewish senators for quite some time now. And unless a new Republican candidate emerges as a victor in Arizona or in New York (for details, look at the projection), there will be no Jewish Republicans in the House as well.
Of course, one might wonder if all of this even matters – and also why this comes as a surprise. After all, Jewish representation is declining, but the share of Jews in the general US population is also declining. While Jews used to be 5% of the population – and used to have more representatives than that share in Congress – they are now 2% on a good day – and they still have more representatives than that in Congress. And besides, the more Jews are integrated into the larger society, the less there is a need (or even motivation) to count Jewish representation anywhere. We know that Jews can reach every position, and that should be enough, no?
My approach to this will surely be seen as parochial to some readers (there are days in which I also feel it is parochial), but I'm going to share it with you anyhow: Yes, in an ideal world it would be great for this to not at all matter. But in the practical world the identities and personalities and backgrounds of decision makers do matter. Not that Jewish legislators vote differently from other legislators. Not that their political interests and political beliefs greatly differ from the political beliefs of non-Jewish legislators. They don't. Still, there are nuances that some of them might better understand, and some sensitivities that they might have, and a certain tribal pride that they instill in fellow Jews – pride in being Jewish, as you might remember, was one of few pleasant discoveries of the Pew report on Jewish Americans.
And of course, the fact that Cantor was a Republican was also of special significance. It is better for Jews to be represented in both parties. While most Jews tilt Democrat, and this isn't going to change anytime soon, it is not good for Judaism to be politically branded. Cantor demonstrated to the world that a legislator can be markedly Jewish and markedly conservative (well, maybe not enough of a conservative, as his district proved). He demonstrated to Jews that the Republican Party is an option for them. He demonstrated to the party that the Jewish constituency is not all lost. Surely, even without Cantor in Congress there are still powerful Jews that play the Republican political game – Sheldon Adelson is the obvious example. Then again, it is probably better not to limit Jewish presence in the party to financial support. It is probably better to also have Jewish leaders within the party ranks.
With Cantor gone, and with the prospects of more visible Jewish representation down, it is interesting to ask whether Jewish presence in Congress is only declining because of the dwindling population numbers; or maybe it is a temporary phenomenon that is totally the result of larger political trends (in other words: less Democrats in Congress); or maybe there’s also a decline in Jewish appetite for politics. Such things happen as the culture of minorities changes. And as they happen, they have consequences – some positive, some negative. We should pay attention to them.