There is A LOT of commentary about Eric Cantor’s primary loss last night. Here are some important takeaways:
The media will play up Cantor’s loss by claiming it was about immigration. They will be wrong, but it will be useful for the rest of us. Immigration reform is now DOA in the House of Representatives thanks to David Brat.
But Cantor really did not lose because of immigration alone. Immigration was the surface reason that galvanized the opposition to Cantor, but the opposition could not have been galvanized with this issue had Cantor been a better congressman these past few years.
And it’s likely true that Cantor’s loss means any hopes for reform this year are extremely remote or non-existent. The story here, however, has always been that immigration reform’s fate rests entirely on John Boehner: Either he allows it to move forward or he doesn’t. Perhaps that’s much harder now, but it was always going to be hard, and its fate was always going to turn on whether Boehner decided the upsides were worth the downsides…
To the degree that immigration did matter to the outcome — and I don’t claim to know either way — the key point here is that Cantor wasn’t actually an advocate of immigration reform in any meaningful sense. If anything, he was an obstacle to it. Remember, Cantor has received national attention for his efforts to make the party look more tolerant only by trying to move behind the scenes for a vote only on legalizing the DREAMers. What that push really showed is how limited his efforts to make the GOP appear more inclusive really were.
But as stunning as the upset is, immigration isn’t really why Cantor lost, or even why conservatives were upset with him in the first place—though they will happily embrace that analysis if it’ll scare other immigrant-friendly Republicans straight. To the contrary, evidence that immigration reform isn’t actually a huge intra-GOP liability lies everywhere in plain sight. Senator Lindsey Graham—a famous conservative bête noire who co-authored, voted for, helped pass, and continues to support comprehensive immigration reform—won his primary handily. In South Carolina. The same night Cantor lost.
His position on immigration reform was more confused than that. Unlike Senator Lindsey Graham, who easily won his Republican primary in South Carolina, Cantor never committed to reform and failed to defend it, let alone champion it, in his campaign. Indeed, pro-immigration groups refused to claim Cantor as their own, with one group condemningCantor for “talking out of both sides of his mouth” on the issue.
The problem is that the incentives pushing Republicans to take positions against immigration reform (or, even worse, as Eric Cantor seemed to do, to flip-flop on the issue) in order to win primaries probably also sow the seeds for future national general election losses. (No, I don’t think Hispanics are solely focused on immigration reform, but I do think tackling this problem is a sine qua non.)
Even more frustrating is the fact that Republicans seem to have chosen to create this sort of vicious cycle, whereby perceived antagonism toward immigrants has led to Republicans losing Hispanic votes — which, in turn, has led other Republicans to argue that immigration reform is electoral suicide… Repeat.
This seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophesy of the GOP’s own choosing; Democrats now “own” the immigration reform “brand,” which has all sorts of long-term consequences and implications, including the fact that conservatives now reflexively oppose even moderate reforms like the DREAM Act. And frankly, I suspect, Democrats are perfectly happy with that.