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Eric Cantor’s Loss and Immigration Reform: 3 Lessons for Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman

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New Republican Poll Reveals Just How Much Colorado Republicans Will Leave on the Table if They Continue the March Away from Immigration Reform

Tuesday nigh, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost to little known challenger, David Brat, in the VA-7 Republican primary. While this may make the prospects for immigration reform that much more difficult amongst House Republicans who already didn’t want to take up the issue, this could spell doom for Colorado Republican Reps. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Mike Coffman (R-CO) as they seek to compete in an increasingly diverse state. Here’s our take:

1.     What was immigration’s role in Cantor’s defeat?

The main reason Cantor lost was not because he was an immigration reform supporter.  He wasn’t.  It’s because he proved to be a hypocrite on the issue.  In addition, he seemed more interested in his rise to power than in representing his voters.  On immigration, he told voters in his district that he was blocking reform, and told audiences in Washington, DC that he wanted to do reform if Obama would work with him.  Cantor spoke out of both sides of his mouth on the issue, a strategy Coffman and Gardner have both embraced. As Jeff Schapiro writes in Cantor’s hometown Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Cantor’s maneuvering on immigration was illustrative of a larger issue: a perception within Republican circles that Cantor, in his determination to succeed John Boehner as speaker, seemed more interested in positioning for the next phase of the nonstop news cycle than embracing a distinct agenda.” Cantor’s single positive claim on immigration is a supposed embrace of the KIDS Act, but that never moved beyond the rhetorical stage.  He never introduced actual bill text, and similar to both Coffman and Gardner he voted against the DREAM Act and he voted for a Steve King amendment to defund the DACA program and subject DREAMers to deportation.

2.     “Leaning in” Versus “Talking Out of Both Sides of Your Mouth”

The Hill reported on a GOP poll on immigration released today from FWD.us: “We had a great case study in how this issue plays out in a conservative Republican primary yesterday but it wasn’t in the 7th district of Virginia, it was in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres argued, pointing out that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) won big despite embracing comprehensive immigration reform while Cantor embraced only small parts of it.” Coffman and Gardner would do well to take a page out of Lindsey Graham’s playbook . Sen. Graham leaned into the issue of immigration, never strayed from embracing it and made sure to carefully explain his pro-reform stance.

3.     GOP primary voters actually support immigration reform, and so does every other demographic Republicans need to win.

The FWD.us poll  backs up the Graham strategy in a big way. Page 63 outlines responses to two Republican primary candidates, one who supports reform and the other who advocates deportation. Even Republican primary voters supported the pro-reform candidate and position by a 70 to 21 margin.  The poll also found (page 44) that Republican voters, once they learn the components of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, support reform at even higher levels than Democrats or Independents, though all groups register high levels of support. Perhaps most important for Coffman and Gardner is that in addition to scoring high marks with Republican base voters, supporting real immigration reform, opens them up to huge gains and credibility not just with Latino voters, but with women, independents and younger voters (pages 59-62).

Patty Kupfer, Colorado-based Managing Director of America’s Voice, said:

I hope Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman were paying close attention yesterday. To date they’ve both been strict disciples of the Eric Cantor ‘say one thing in DC and another thing at home’ immigration philosophy. GOP voters don’t buy it, independent voters don’t buy it and, God knows, Latino voters won’t buy it. If they want a shot of winning, I’d recommend they look at the Lindsey Graham ‘lean in’ strategy. But that means more than talking a good talk, and time is running out.

349 Days Since Senate Passed its Immigration Bill; 15 Days Left Until Window of Opportunity Closes