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Eric Cantor's Loss and Immigration Reform: Role, Meaning and Future

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Here’s our take on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) defeat, the role immigration reform played in his primary loss, the meaning of the outcome for the immediate prospects of immigration reform and the impact it all could have on the Republican Party’s future:

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

While primary winner Dave Brat said yesterday that immigration was “the most symbolic issue that captures the difference between myself and Eric Cantor in this race,” it misses the mark to pin the lion’s share of Cantor’s loss on his so-called “pro-amnesty” immigration stance.  On substance – not symbols – Cantor was not pro-reform but the biggest obstacle to reform.  He has been the main person in the House blocking a vote on citizenship, and he proudly campaigned on his opposition to reform.

Cantor’s supposed embrace of the KIDS Act never moved beyond the rhetorical stage.  He never introduced actual bill text, he voted against the DREAM Act and he voted for a Steve King amendment to defund the DACA program and subject DREAMers to deportation.  His opposition to immigration reform was so stark, in fact, that Rep. Luis Gutierrez went to Cantor’s district less than two weeks before the primary to pressure him to stop obstructing reform in the House of Representatives.

The “blame immigration” angle also misses the fact that on the same night that reform opponent Cantor lost in a GOP primary, reform champion Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) won his primary in resounding fashion.  Can there be a more deeply conservative primary electorate than in South Carolina?  Sen. Graham leaned into the issue of immigration, never strayed from embracing it and made sure to carefully explain his pro-reform stance.

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.  In contrast to Lindsey Graham’s principled advocacy for immigration reform, Cantor spoke out of both sides of his mouth on the issue.  As Brian Beutler writes in a sharp assessment in The New Republic: “In the end the right’s beef with him…was about his willingness to use power politics and procedural hijinks to cut conservatives out of the tangle when expedient. The lesson of his defeat isn’t that immigration reform is particularly poisonous, but that the right expects its leaders to understand they can’t subsume the movement’s energy for tactical purposes, then grant it only selective influence over big decisions.”  And 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.”

What does Cantor’s loss mean for immigration reform prospects?

For all the huffing and puffing about the fate of immigration reform, the fact is that nothing much has changed.  As has been the case for weeks now, the window for potential legislative action on immigration is rapidly closing; if House leadership doesn’t move by the end of June, Republicans will have blocked the best chance at enacting landmark immigration reform legislation in a generation; opposition to moving forward on reform resonates only with a small and shrinking slice of the electorate; the GOP still needs to be part of the solution to this issue if they want to regain their competitiveness with Latino, Asian-American and immigrant voters, especially as the 2016 election approaches; and if the House GOP officially declares immigration dead, President Obama will have no choice but to use existing legal authority to begin the process of delivering relief and reform via executive action – until a House of Representatives committed to reform is elected and a permanent solution can be enacted. 

What does Cantor’s loss mean for the GOP?

The Cantor loss is less about the future of immigration reform and more about the future of the Republican Party.  Will the Republican Party stand up to the nihilistic ‘Hell No’ faction in order to attract broader support from a changing American electorate?  Or will it choose to double down on the anti-immigrant policies that hurt them badly in 2012 and become a regional party for years to come?  This is the Republican Party’s problem and it will define – for better or worse – the Republican Party’s future.

348 Days Since Senate Passed its Immigration Bill; 16 Days Left Until Window of Opportunity Closes