In the aftermath of the Republican defeat Tuesday, Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia plans to seek the all-important Minority Whip post, a position he has been rumored to covet for weeks, according to sources close to the Congressman. The post is currently held by Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Even on Tuesday night, it was clear Cantor wouldn't be wasting time mourning his party's losses. Senate candidate Jim Gilmore was still giving his gloomy concession speech to a depressed crowd of Republicans inside a suburban Richmond hotel ballroom while Cantor was posing in a hallway outside for a star-struck waitress using her cell phone camera to snap a picture with him. Cantor had declared his own victory just after 9 p.m. In a decidedly unfriendly environment for Republicans across the country, and even in once solidly Red Virginia, the 45-year-old GOP congressman had won 63 percent of the vote.
Ed Barden, a 50-year-old Richmond furniture storeowner who was at the party watching returns, put it best: "There were people who voted Democrat, Democrat, Cantor." But even though Cantor's margin was not a surprise given that he's from a conservative district and is very popular, there were big questions remaining: Where does he go from here and how does he reshape the party in the process? That answer became clear on Wednesday.
Politico last year called Cantor "a dominant Republican voice," and many insiders expect him to play a large role in helping to rebuild the damaged GOP. Telegenic, intelligent, and a vigorous fundraiser, Cantor has built a formidable brand of his own. He is known for an emphasis on fiscal discipline, lowering taxes and government accountability, themes he revisited again and again in an interview with NEWSWEEK Tuesday night. Cantor, ever ambitious, wasn't ready to announce his intentions regarding the minority whip post when asked in an interview Tuesday night, but he made it clear he is interested in an increased leadership role in the 111th Congress.
His constituents wouldn't mind seeing Cantor take the reins. Ted Brown, a Richmond resident and professor of political science, crumpled in his seat at Tuesday night's party when the networks called Old Dominion for Obama, but brightened considerably when asked about his local congressman. "I'm certainly not trying to write the political obituary of John Boehner or Roy Blunt, but there's some scenarios that one could easily picture Eric Cantor as the new Republican floor leader," Brown said. "If he wanted to exploit it he's earned a lot of political credit." Brown said Cantor's leadership could make a huge difference in preventing a Democratic stampede from taking over Washington. "Just as Bill Clinton did with health care, Obama, with such a large congressional majority, could be easily vulnerable to hubris and could overreach and hopefully we could see a tremendous bounce back in the midterms in 2010," Brown said.
Echoing Brown's sentiments about the dangers of Democratic overreach and predicting success at beating back the Democratic tide, Cantor said House leadership and especially Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have alienated voters by flexing partisan muscles at a time of economic crisis. But he also sounded a hopeful note, saying he expects Democrats to work cooperatively with the minority in Congress and govern from the middle. "They're going to have members who frankly are coming from Republican seats," Cantor said. "They won't be able to survive in those seats unless they support some common sense conservative solutions and not be so far to the left." He added that: "by virtue of the way [Obama] conducted his race he understands this is a center-right country and you run on a conservative platform of cutting taxes for the middle class. That sort of indicates someone gets it."
Cantor was vague about his plans for an upcoming series of meetings Republicans will hold to decide how to rebuild, but he did not deny the GOP brand has taken a hit. Cantor cited Obama's financial advantage and the toxic environment for Republicans as factors contributing to the party's decline. The biggest problem, Cantor said, is that the GOP allowed Democrats to co-opt what has traditionally been a conservative message. "All of a sudden you hear Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Chuck Schumer talk about the middle class as if the Democrats own the middle class issue," he said. "The middle class is, really was, our playing field. That's how Ronald Reagan came into power, that's how Newt Gingrich came into power, is to stick up for the working families … If nothing else, we couldn't get the message out. Look, Barack Obama ran as a conservative."
Cantor, who was relaxed and reclining comfortably in front of a fireplace in the hotel lobby as he spoke, said that while Obama talks about giving 95 percent of Americans a tax cut, he believes the president-elect plans to pay for it with significant tax hikes on small businesses. His job, he said, will be to explain that to people and "rebuild a mandate for the middle class in this country." Meanwhile, 100 yards away, Cantor's fellow Republicans were all but crying in their drinks, trying to figure out how it all went so wrong.