Politics & Policy

Eric Cantor Is Back — But He Never Really Left

When the former majority leader rings, GOP presidential contenders still answer.

Former GOP House majority leader Eric Cantor hasn’t picked a presidential candidate to back in 2016 yet, but he’s narrowed the field to four – and the congressman-turned-investment-banker is positioning himself to give a considerable boost to his ultimate choice.

In the past few months, Cantor has met or conversed by phone with four potential 2016 presidential candidates. Unsurprisingly, he claims those four are the ones most likely to win.

“I believe there are four that really represent the likely potential nominee: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Marco Rubio,” Cantor said in an interview with National Review. “I’m maintaining a strong interest in what will transpire over the next 18 months as we head toward the next election.”

Some might have thought Cantor, who last year was rejected by his constituents in one of the most shocking upsets in recent memory, was yesterday’s news and out of the political scene. But, he’s still being schmoozed by some of the biggest names in the GOP field — or at least being given a courtesy call. Credit his still-relevant status to his strong relationships with the GOP donor class, respect from his Capitol Hill colleagues, and ties to a slew of former staffers who are now trying to lead and organize the burgeoning “reformocon” movement.

Cantor co-hosted a February 15 event with Bush for the Republican State Leadership Committee in Richmond, Va., and co-hosted an event for Christie a few days later. His recent discussions with Walker and Rubio happened over the phone.

Asked if he sees a behind-the-scenes role in politics in his future, Cantor laughs and says, “I’m really not very focused on what role I’m thinking [of] right now in terms of political life. But there’s just a lot of interconnect between the state of the country, the future of the economy, and what decisions are being made.”

Of course, working at an investment bank is a great way to meet successful, wealthy people who are interested in what laws get passed.

“I’m in a position that will allow me the exposure to the decision-makers in the private sector, gaining a better understanding of how our economy is working,” Cantor explains. “I’m actually now on the front lines, seeing the results of those policies, and the decision-makers who really make the economy go and how they react and how they react to policies that come out of Washington.”

A thick Rolodex full of wealthy people is always useful for fundraising, and even before he joined Moelis, Cantor was one of the Republican party’s most effective and tireless fundraisers. He raised more than $32 million in his House races over his career and a separate $17.4 million for his leadership PAC, Every Republican Is Crucial (ERIC).

Some are interpreting Cantor’s 2016 discussions and active former staff as a sign of a political comeback. The Virginia political blog Bearing Drift recently offered a dramatic headline: “Eric Cantor Is Coming Back, and the Reformicons Are Coming With Him!”

Cantor insists he isn’t looking to return to elected office. But he’s reinvented his previous organization into the Conservative Reform Network with the help of some former staffers – and he clearly intends to be a big part of the GOP’s political discussion in 2016.

But don’t call it a comeback – he’s been here for years.

Cantor, who lost to Dave Brat in his House primary in 2014 in one of the most shocking upsets in recent memory, is careful not to criticize the other potential presidential candidates. But in the interview, he keeps reiterating that the next Republican president needs to have both vision and the ability to get specific policies off the drawing board, taking a veiled swipe at those contenders who may lack one of those attributes.

While Cantor won’t get into the specifics of his conversations with the potential GOP presidential candidates, he does offer his view of how Republicans can go wrong when discussing the state of the Virginia state GOP, currently so desperately cash-strapped that its January 31 filing with the Federal Elections Commission indicated that it had $252 in cash on hand.

“The Republican party of Virginia needs to do a better job at convincing the electorate, [explaining] why conservative philosophy is the right recipe for not just those who think they’re conservative Republicans, but for everybody,” Cantor said. “We’ve got to win in terms of the ideas. And it’s not been very focused on that effort. It’s been very exclusive, and that’s turned off a lot of people. I just think the model of inclusion, not exclusion, surrounding the ideas of conservatism is what they should be about.”

His former staffers may end up having an outsize influence on what actual policies get discussed and promoted on the campaign trail in the coming year.

In 2010, Cantor co-wrote a book along with then–House majority whip Kevin McCarthy and House Budget chairman Paul Ryan, contending that there was a need for a new conservative leadership in Washington with new policy ideas. In 2011, top Cantor aide John Murray formed a non-profit 501(c)(4) group called the “Young Guns Network.” The group is reinventing and renaming itself as the Conservative Reform Network, aiming to be a clearing house for a wide range of policy ideas.

The group recently added Neil Bradley, the former deputy chief of staff for McCarthy, and Cantor before him. The CRN policy director, April Ponnuru, will be an adviser to former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s likely presidential campaign starting around June.

CRN will host a “policy summit” April 9–11 and will release a series of 18 short policy books starting in the summer. Topics will include energy and the environment, a proposed GOP urban agenda, retirement security, crime, and trade. By late 2016, the series of books would represent a ready-made policy agenda . . . if the GOP nominee is interested.

Cantor says the organization’s goal is to make an impact “on the policy end as well as the political end.”

But don’t look for Cantor to be running for office anytime soon.

Cantor said, “I am very committed to my new position here at Moelis and company,”

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