In Congress, Eric Cantor Is Plotting the GOP's Comeback

The No. 2 Republican in the House wants to make the minority more than 'the party of no.'

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The shorthand on House Republican Eric Cantor: He's Jewish, southern, a fundraising dynamo—and ambitious. Cantor was elected to the No. 2 spot in the House GOP leadership late last year, signifying a meteoric ascent for someone who entered Congress only in 2001. Where the 45-year-old conservative Virginian goes next probably will hinge on the fate of Barack Obama and congressional Democrats as well as the political fortunes of Cantor's dispirited GOP colleagues. After disastrous 2006 and 2008 elections triggered the cumulative loss of 50-plus seats, the GOP holds only 178 of 435 spots, roughly 2 in 5 places.

Eric Ivan Cantor, a native of Richmond, Va., is the son of a politically active lawyer and developer. After earning three degrees, Cantor went into the family business, which is commercial and residential real estate development and management. At age 28, he won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Today, he ranks just behind Minority Leader John Boehner in his capacity as the opposition party's whip, which has him mustering GOP votes and keeping down defections. Cantor was an important factor in every single Republican House member voting against President Obama's nearly $800 billion economic stimulus.

With polls showing the GOP brand tarnished, Cantor aims to recast House Republicans as more than the "party of no." He's promoting what he calls an "entrepreneurial insurgency" by offering alternatives on the stimulus, the budget, and housing. Proposals on healthcare, energy, and retirement security are in the works.

Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are targeting what they believe are more than 40 vulnerable Democrats, chiefly in districts that Sen. John McCain won in the presidential race. History shows that in most midterm elections—the next are Nov. 2, 2010—the party that occupies the White House loses several seats in Congress. Analysts say that, with such big question marks as the troubled economy and two drawn-out wars, it's too early to predict whether the pattern will hold.

That didn't stop Cantor, at a recent breakfast in Washington with political reporters, from throwing out the prospect that the GOP might take back control of the House. "I'm very confident we will pick up seats midterm if we do the necessary work of finding good candidates," he said. "I don't remove the prospect that we could take the majority back in 2010."

Despite the meal's 8 a.m. start, Cantor didn't take so much as a sip of coffee and ignored the fruit plate before him. He expounded at length about where his party is and where he'd like it to go. Tall, lean, and bespectacled, Cantor, who speaks with a faint southern drawl, said that House Republicans came to the 111th Congress "with a dose of contrition," knowing "our party needs to do some repair work."

Cantor, who calls Ronald Reagan his political hero and has never lost a race for elected office, wants the GOP to return to its roots as the party of low taxes and less government. He says he knows that people are keenly concerned about unemployment. By his count, the shuttering of Circuit City just cost 2,000 jobs in his Richmond district alone. But Cantor says people also worry about "the increasing intrusion of the federal government" into many segments of the economy and "profligate" federal spending.

Cantor attracted national attention when rumors surfaced that he was a possible running mate to McCain. Some dismiss the whispers as pure fabrication intended to prop up Cantor, a prodigious fundraiser who courted Jewish voters for McCain. Cantor won't say whether he was vetted—"you can talk to John McCain about that"—but says that "my kids thought it was really cool for me to be mentioned."

He and his wife, Diana, who hails from a prominent family of Miami Democrats, have three teenagers. She supports gay marriage and is pro-abortion rights ("We have a mixed marriage," he jokes) and has three degrees, including one in law and an M.B.A. Diana Cantor is a managing director at New York Private Bank & Trust, which received $267 million of federal bailout money. Cantor recently voted "present" on a House-passed measure to curb bonuses for executives of banks that have received federal rescue dollars, saying that the bill posed a conflict of interest.