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How Eric Cantor wants to change the House – and the Republican Party

As the No. 2 Republican in the House, majority leader Eric Cantor will have his hands full navigating fired-up freshmen members through a series of controversial votes.

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Although Cantor has excelled at challenging Democrats, he's also taken a critical line on his own party's history. "[W]e must govern differently. Not just differently than the Democrats, but differently from our previous majority," he wrote in a letter to GOP colleagues after the midterm elections.

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The education of a majority leader

Cantor grew up in an upscale neighborhood at the edge of Richmond, where established families date back to the nation's founding or its near-breakup during the Civil War. By contrast, his own family is two generations away from anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia.

"I went to school and met people with a lot of history in Virginia ... and understood at some point that this was America, a merit-based society, and that if you worked hard, you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve," Cantor says.

As a student at George Washington University, he interned for then-US Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia. "He just had a natural talent, and that was recognized when he came [to the House] as a freshman," Mr. Bliley recalls.

A Roman Catholic, Bliley says he was drawn to Cantor's ability to make connections outside his own Jewish community. In big-city politics, a Catholic or Jewish politician can afford to stay within his or her own neighborhood, says Bliley, "but when you're in a neighborhood with a majority of people who are neither Catholic nor Jewish, you have to move to the larger community in order to succeed."

After gaining a law degree at the College of William & Mary, Cantor moved to New York, where he earned a master's in real estate management from Columbia University and met his wife, Diana. By 1991, he had won election to the Virginia House of Delegates.

"He quickly became the go-to guy for many delegates who didn't understand the complex business issues that were being considered or debated. He could explain it," says Richard Cullen, a former Virginia attorney general, now chairman of the corporate law firm McGuireWoods in Richmond.

When Bliley announced his retirement from Congress, he backed Cantor to replace him. In the end, it was a tough GOP primary, including 11th-hour campaign ads targeting Cantor's Jewish background. Cantor won the primary by 263 votes – and then the general election by 67 percent of the vote. He has sailed through reelections ever since.

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