Forget Rush Limbaugh.
For all the focus on the king of conservative talk, Democrats may have found a more important villain in House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, a telegenic young Republican trying to bring life to his party on Capitol Hill.
As the Virginia Republican fights President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority on everything from spending to stem cells, the Democrats are racing to introduce him to voters before he can introduce himself.
• At last month’s White House summit on entitlement reform, Obama painted Cantor as a poster child for obstructionism. “I’m going to keep on talking to Eric Cantor,” the president said. “Someday, sooner or later, he’s going to say, ‘Boy, Obama had a good idea.’”
• In a Washington Post op-ed last week, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Rush Limbaugh’s voice “could be heard in the words of new Republican quarterback Eric Cantor.”
• In robocalls aimed at potentially vulnerable Republicans in Michigan, Florida and California, union groups are urging voters to ask their representatives why they’re “following the ‘party of no’ and its Republican leader, Eric Cantor.”
• In a series of TV spots, Americans United for Change identified Cantor as one of the Republican leaders who have stood with Limbaugh and opposed Obama’s stimulus plan.
A senior Democratic aide said Monday that “Cantor is well on his way to being defined. He is ‘Mr. No.’”
If that’s how voters think of Cantor, it’s not exactly an accident.
Americans United for Change spokesman Jeremy Funk said it’s important to define “new faces” who “emerge on the right.”
“Eric Cantor may be a new face, but he is representing the same old policies the right wing has been promoting and that President Bush pursued that have America in the mess we are in today,” Funk said.
House Republicans say Democrats are targeting Cantor precisely because he’s effective.
“He’s a threat,” said Texas Rep. Kay Granger, a member of Cantor’s Republican whip team. “He’s smart. He’s aggressive. He’s a great strategist. All of the above.”
“He’s doing a good job,” added Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan. “Whenever you do a good job, they come after you.”
Right or wrong, some Republicans on Capitol Hill attribute the Democrats’ fixation with Cantor to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; in some ways, the two were mirror images of one another as they climbed their way up their respective parties’ leadership ladders.
Cantor has also gotten under the skin of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose team is bristling over his use of some of the same techniques she once used to harass former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
But Jennifer Crider, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the attention Cantor’s getting now is simply an inevitable part of life in the political limelight.
“In Washington, D.C., there is a free hedge-clipping service,” she said. “Stick your head up for long enough, and someone will come along and give you a trim.”
Whatever its cause, members of Cantor’s team insist that they appreciate the attention he’s getting from the other side. In Washington, partisan barbs can be the ultimate sign of political respect, and Cantor’s staff says the attacks from the left are proof that he’s shaking the Democratic establishment.
“Mr. Cantor’s hard work has not only caught the attention of the president and key players at the White House but has clearly rattled armies of the left,” said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring. “Partisan attacks by the liberal echo chamber will not deter Mr. Cantor from cotinuing to offer common-sense solutions and work with the president. We have too much work to do for the American people.”
Although Dayspring cited Cantor’s “work with the president,” the Virginia lawmaker’s opposition to Obama’s agenda has been a major theme of the attacks against him.
While the 2010 midterm elections are still 20 months away, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included Cantor in the list of 28 Republican incumbents it attacked in radio spots last month.
The ad that aired in Cantor’s district asked voters, “Did you know Congressman Eric Cantor voted to bail out big banks but opposed tax breaks for 95 percent of American workers?”
Cantor’s name is also becoming more popular in the blogosphere and on cable news.
ThinkProgress and The Huffington Post tweaked Cantor for using an Aerosmith song about prostitutes to tout the House Republicans’ unanimous votes against the stimulus.
And hosts on MSNBC regularly deride the party whip as the face of the GOP. Last month, Keith Olbermann told viewers, “If House whip Eric Cantor is the future of the Republican Party, it is time to register as a Whig, or possibly a Bull Moose.”
In focusing so hard on the House Republicans’ No. 2 man, the Democrats and their allies have all but ignored the No. 1. John A. Boehner, the top Republican in the House, wasn’t even mentioned in the robocalls attacking Cantor as the “Republican leader.”