Earlier this month, Republican Lee Zeldin, a New York state senator who is running for Congress this year, welcomed House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to Quiogue, N.Y., to headline a fundraiser on Zeldin's behalf.
It was not unusual that Cantor would travel to New York’s 1st Congressional District in an election year to support a top-tier candidate for a closely-watched tossup seat. In an alternate political universe, Cantor might have been grooming a potential future colleague.
But, earlier that week, Cantor had lost his re-election bid in a shocking primary upset to a little-known college professor, Dave Brat. Square though he was in the media spotlight, and though he toted a tarnished political brand, Cantor made the trip anyway. Now, Zeldin was suddenly the best shot among Jewish Republicans to maintain a voice in Congress -- and, since Zeldin won his Republican primary this week against a well-funded challenger, even more so.
Cantor has been the only Jewish Republican to serve in the House since 2003, when former Rep. Benjamin Gilman, of New York, retired. Other than Cantor, who took office in 2011, there has not been a Jewish Republican in either chamber of Congress since Sens. Norm Coleman and Arlen Specter left office in 2009.
The dearth of Jewish lawmakers is unique to Republicans: Among Democrats, there are currently 22 Jewish members of the House and another 10 in the Senate.
Faith has not been a cornerstone of Zeldin’s pitch — indeed, his official campaign biography does not mention his religion — but when he kicked off his congressional bid in October, he did consider that he might double the number of Republican Jews in the House. Cantor’s defeat has raised the stakes.
“Now it’s taken on the added purpose of making sure there remains at least one [Jewish] voice in Congress amongst the Republican conference,” Zeldin told the Washington Examiner.
Zeldin’s roadblock to assuming that role is Rep. Tim Bishop, one of the more vulnerable House Democrats in this election cycle. The two candidates faced each other for the same seat in 2008, when Bishop, then too the incumbent, trounced Zeldin by 17 points.
Zeldin is not the only Jewish Republican running for a House seat in this election cycle: There is also Adam Kwasman, an Arizona state representative waging an underdog bid in a competitive Republican field, and Elan Carr, running to replace Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in a staunchly Democratic district that includes Beverly Hills. Among the three, Zeldin is considered the odds-on favorite to take up Cantor's mantle.
Not that being one Jew among an otherwise homogeneous House Republican conference is an enviable position. Prayer and other expressions of religion are a regular part of House Republican conference meetings; during the government shutdown last year, the members sang “Amazing Grace” in its entirety.
But Zeldin says he isn’t daunted by accepting and adapting to such a work environment.
“I went to a big school growing up where just me and a couple of other kids were the only Jewish students in school, and we got by fine,” Zeldin said. “We were proud of our faith then, even though we were in the minority.”
Were he elected, Zeldin said he would likely take an understated approach similar to Cantor’s, with “faith and strong foreign policy credentials ... informing each other.”
For Zeldin, as with Cantor, that would mean an approach to foreign policy rooted in staunchly protecting and maintaining strong relations with Israel -- the central topic Cantor and Zeldin discussed at the Quiogue event.
Speaking to the full room of supporters, Cantor was upbeat as he reflected on his loss. When one door closes, another opens. That sort of thing.
Maybe the door would open for Zeldin.
“I think it is important to carry over the unfinished business that Eric Cantor has been working on throughout his entire congressional career,” Zeldin said. “I would very much welcome the opportunity to pick up where he leaves off.”