First, he penned an op-ed in his hometown newspaper about rebuilding the Virginia GOP. Then, he showed up at the party’s annual retreat to pay tribute to a friend, former governor Robert F. McDonnell.
The back-to-back moves by Eric Cantor had attendees wondering whether the ousted House majority leader, now a Wall Street executive, was plotting a return to elected office.
Republicans are already lining up to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in 2018, and Cantor’s entry into the race would shake up the field.
“No” was Cantor’s one-word answer to whether he is preparing a run for the Senate.
But he left the door open for a potential comeback one day.
“I don’t intend to,” he added in a phone interview during a business trip to Copenhagen. “I’ve learned in life never say never. But I’m not running for the 2018 Senate seat.”
Instead, Cantor said, he resurfaced to warn his Virginia Republicans that just because Donald Trump won the presidency, it doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do in Old Dominion.
This was the first election, he said, in which the Republican presidential nominee fared worse in Virginia than he did nationally, giving Democrats their third straight win.
“I’m used to Virginia being a strong Republican state and feel we are not and shouldn’t be in the Democratic column,” he said.
Cantor’s nostalgic view of the party as a grass-roots-fueled underdog was shaped by his father’s experience, he said. A Jewish Republican and young lawyer in the 1970s and ’80s, his father was attracted to the party’s embrace of the outsider at a time when “a well-funded, entrenched Democratic machine” ruled the roost, Cantor said in the op-ed.
The era reminded him of what Trump accomplished this year.
“Trump, when he punctured the blue wall in the Rust Belt, clearly was able to attract new people into the voter rolls for a Republican nominee,” Cantor said. “We didn’t do that in Virginia . . . and in fact the trend is the other way.”
Cantor spoke briefly during a private cocktail reception at the weekend retreat — dubbed the Advance — at McDonnell’s invitation. They were seatmates in the House of Delegates in the early 1990s and neighbors in western Henrico County.
In a humiliating defeat, Cantor lost his seat — and his leadership position in Congress — when he was defeated by a college professor, Dave Brat, in the 2014 Republican primary. Brat’s election, buoyed by a tea party rebellion against the Republican establishment, alienated many of the business-centric donors who supported more mainstream GOP candidates such as Cantor.
That trend might begin to reverse with the party’s decision to nominate 2017 candidates through a primary open to all voters, rather than a party convention, which tends to favor more extreme candidates who have trouble winning general elections.
In one sign of warming relations, the party leaders recently held a meeting at the new Richmond headquarters of McGuireWoods, the influential law and lobbying firm. One of its partners, Jerry Kilgore, is the party finance chairman and former attorney general.
“It’s no secret that the business community has supported primaries over and over again. It does help. You can’t overstate that,” Kilgore said.
A few individuals expressed concerns to the party about Cantor’s appearance at the retreat because Brat was booked to headline a breakfast with Rep. Rob Wittman the following morning.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Cantor said. “That’s the beauty of our country. I’m sure not everyone will listen, but I hope that some will because I feel very strongly about it.”
Ultimately, Cantor’s comments were in keeping with the theme of the weekend — to elect Republicans to the three statewide offices up in 2017: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The retreat, the party’s biggest fundraising event of the year, brought in $260,000 before expenses, according to John Whitbeck, the state GOP chair.
Cantor urged the party to appeal not only to solid Republicans, but also to independent voters and conservative Democrats.
A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday shows that GOP strategist Ed Gillespie leads state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) and Corey Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William board of supervisors and Trump’s onetime Virginia chairman.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Virginia GOP chair John Whitbeck and a photo caption incorrectly named investment bank Moelis.