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Eric Cantor’s America

Current House Speaker John Boehner   

The downside to recruiting non-career politicians is they don’t necessarily know how to run for office, so Cantor taught them the ropes. “He was always calling with advice,” says Cory Gardner, a freshman from Colorado. “I oftentimes wondered, now, surely he can’t call everybody because how much time does he have? But then I got to Congress, and I discovered that he was calling everybody.”

Even more important than advice was money. Cantor is one of the GOP’s most prolific fund-raisers—hoovering up dollars not only in Richmond, but in the Jewish precincts of Los Angeles and Miami as well as in New York, where hedge-funders and private-equity types appreciate his efforts to preserve the “carried interest” income-tax break. He is comfortable monetizing an extraordinarily wide swath of his life. “Michigan is fixing to be a big fund-raising deal for us,” Cantor’s political consultant Ray Allen Jr. told me when I met him at his office in Richmond. “His daughter is going to be a sophomore at Ann Arbor, and he’s up to see her there a lot.” Last election cycle, Cantor, through his PAC, donated $657,000 to the soon-to-be freshmen. He also helped raise $11 million for their campaigns, holding fund-raisers on their behalf, not only in Washington but also in their districts, 44 of which Cantor visited before Election Day. “You remember those guys that show up early,” says South Carolina freshman Tim Scott, “and Eric was one of the early guys that showed up.”

At a freshman-orientation meeting in the Capitol last December, Cantor used the occasion to give the group a pep talk. “We must ask ourselves,” Cantor instructed them, “ ‘Are my efforts addressing job creation and the economy? Are they reducing spending? Are they shrinking the size of the federal government while protecting and expanding liberty? If not, why am I doing it? … Why are we doing it?’ ” He called his reverie the “Cantor Rule” and subsequently had it printed up on laminated, red-white-and-blue-bunted index cards, which he distributed to members of the GOP caucus (and to at least one aide as a Christmas gift).

“I try to be deferential. Certainly to the president. I’m not this guy with horns.”

Over the past year, Cantor has continued to advocate on behalf of the freshman. He has pressured Boehner to share information that he was keeping close to his vest, including the status of his talks with the White House during budget negotiations in April. “We definitely wanted more information than we were getting,” says one freshman, “and a lot of us viewed Cantor as our advocate on that front.” In August, after Hurricane Irene ravaged the East Coast, Cantor went on Fox News to announce that additional funds for federal disaster relief would have to be offset by spending cuts. This was a position popular with tea-partiers, who are still angry that back in 2005 Congress tacked the cost of Hurricane Katrina’s cleanup onto the deficit. But it didn’t go over so well in Cantor’s own district, which not only had been hit hard by Irene but, a week earlier, had been at the epicenter of an earthquake, and Cantor was quickly forced to clarify that the money would be made available. When I interviewed Cantor for the first time one afternoon in late August in Richmond, it was four days after the hurricane and eight days after the earthquake—and he had just emerged from a series of meetings with nervous local leaders inquiring about disaster relief. Talking to me, he brought up the topic unbidden. “Of course I’m for prioritizing disaster relief,” he said. “We’ll find moneys.” When I later checked my Twitter feed, I noticed that during our one-hour interview, @EricCantor had tweeted the same point twice.

Still, although Cantor has occasionally found currying favor with the freshmen to have its short-term downsides, the strategy has paid significant dividends: In April, when the budget deal the House leadership team struck with Obama turned out not to have as many cuts as advertised, it was Boehner, not Cantor, who bore the brunt of the freshmen’s anger.

“I can text Cantor and get a response back in minutes,” says one freshman, explaining his allegiance. “I don’t know if Speaker Boehner even has a cell phone.”

And yet for all the loyalty many GOP congressmen feel toward Cantor, he is surprisingly unloved. Even his admirers say he lacks the social ease and natural confidence of most politicians. Ric Keller, a former Florida Republican congressman, recalls finding Cantor in the men’s room at the Greenbrier resort in 2003 moments before he was about to give a speech at the congressional GOP retreat: “There is Eric nervously pacing back and forth, and he says, ‘Ric, do you got any advice for me?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you just got appointed chief deputy whip and made it onto the Ways and Means Committee. It’s Hanukkah every day for you!”