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Will GOP Learn the Right Immigration Lessons from Eric Cantor’s Defeat?

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Voters Want Leadership and Action to Reform Immigration — Not Retreat 

If Republicans learn the wrong lesson from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) loss, they are likely to continue down the wrong path on immigration reform. And if they block the best chance in a generation America has had to enact landmark immigration reform, it will cement the GOP’s anti-immigrant, anti-Latino reputation in the run up to 2016.

On the other hand, if Republicans learn the right lesson, they can step up, show leadership on reform and avoid retreating into a risk-averse, anti-immigrant posture.  As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said regarding his own primary victory and immigration: “You’ve got to take a firm stance one way or the other…immigration did not hurt me.  I got credit for taking this on. I was all in, and I’m going to fight to solve this problem.”

Below we offer a roundup from Republican lawmakers, editorial boards, columnists and reporters assessing the key takeaways for the GOP in the wake of Cantor’s defeat and Graham’s victory:

  • Peter King: Sticking with a ‘Hard-Line Position, “Could Make It Easier In Primaries, But Nationwide That Doesn’t Sell”—As Rep. Peter King (R-NY) tells Greg Sargent of the Washington Post: “There is an opportunity right now — we have Democrats who are willing to agree to strict border controls…We could get meaningful reform which could satisfy most Democrats and Republicans.” As Sargent notes: “But sticking with a ‘hard-line position,’ King adds, ‘could make it easier in primaries, but nationwide that doesn’t sell.’”
  • John McCain: On GOP 2016 Prospects, “It Doesn’t Matter Who We Nominate. We’ll Lose.”–As Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo writes, “Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) warned Tuesday that if Republicans block immigration reform they’ll lose the presidency in 2016 no matter who they nominate.  ‘I agree with Mr. [Tom] Donohue, the head of the Chamber of Commerce. It doesn’t matter who we nominate. We’ll [lose],’ the party’s 2008 presidential nominee told a few reporters in the Capitol, in response to a question from TPM.”
  • Rand Paul: “If We Do Nothing the Status Quo Continues”–With an eye towards 2016, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is even changing his tone on immigration, after voting against the Senate immigration bill last year.  As Paul assessed in the wake of the Cantor loss, “I still am for it.  I say everywhere I go that I am for immigration reform…if we do nothing, the status quo continues.”
  • Jeff Denham: “Lindsey Graham Won. Jeff Denham Won Soundly… We’ve Got to Pick Up the Bills and Have a Full Debate”–Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) one of three Republicans to sign onto a Democratic-led comprehensive immigration bill, pointed to his own primary to show that supporting reform wasn’t a career killer.  As he told Elise Foley of the Huffington Post, “Lindsey Graham won. Jeff Denham won soundly…There are a number of members that are really fighting on immigration reform that are doing very well in their elections. But again, we’ve got to pick up the bills and have a full debate.”

Political writers and editorial boards seem to agree with the assessment of GOP lawmakers:

  • Matt Lewis of the Conservative Daily Caller: Immigration Reform — And The Dangers of Right-Wing Populism–“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.)”
  • Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics: What Cantor’s Loss and Graham’s Win Mean–“Lindsey Graham is one of the faces of immigration reform, and he won his primary handily. The ‘inmates running the asylum’ narrative runs into the very real establishment wins from earlier in the cycle — the same wins that gave rise to the ‘Tea Party is dead’ storyline… In truth, I think the explanation is a bit simpler than all of that, and is more universal than the simplistic ‘immigration reform/Tea Party’ narratives suggest.  It is as follows: We are in a deeply anti-Washington environment, both throughout the country and in the Republican Party in particular.  In this environment, representatives who pay insufficient attention to what is going on in their districts are in grave danger of losing.  There are two components to this explanation.”
  • Ashley Parker of the New York Times: Cantor’s Lesson: Hedging on Immigration Is Perilous–“The lesson that immigration advocates say they gleaned from Tuesday’s election results is, simply put, that hedging on such an intensely charged issue can be politically fatal.  Two very different primaries — one statewide in South Carolina, and one in a gerrymandered Virginia House district that includes parts of Richmond — made that clear.  In South Carolina, Senator Lindsey Graham — one of the Republican architects of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill, who openly discussed his support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants on the campaign trail — easily fended off six primary challengers to win his party’s nomination. But in Virginia, Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, lost in a stunning primary upset to a little-known Tea Party challenger after showing some lukewarm support for several more narrow immigration compromises before frantically backpedaling from the issue.”
  • Molly Ball of The Atlantic: Why Eric Cantor Lost and Lindsey Graham Won–“So why did Graham win while Cantor lost? If Republican base voters’ antagonism to immigration reform sunk Cantor, as many are now saying, it doesn’t make sense. But the difference between the two men’s campaigns is instructive.  Graham ran on immigration, while Cantor ran away from it. Graham talked about his support for a path to citizenship at nearly every campaign stop, touting his work with Democrats on the issue as evidence of his willingness to solve tough problems in Washington. By his calculus, voters would accept a difference of opinion, but they wouldn’t accept insincerity. Cantor, on the other hand, tried to be all things to all people. He voted against the DREAM Act, but to the business lobby, whose campaign donations he reaped, he signaled support for a scaled-back version of it; earlier this week, Graham told me he believes Cantor, to whom he is close, ‘gets it’ when it comes to the need for reform. But in Cantor’s scorched-earth campaign against David Brat, he distributed mailers that boasted about having blocked immigration reform in the House—an analysis frustrated immigration-reform advocates would agree with. It wouldn’t be surprising if voters were reacting more to Cantor’s inconsistency than to his perceived position.”
  • Dara Lind of Vox: Is immigration reform dead? That’s up to John Boehner. Lind provides a full roundup on react comments and statements from both sides of the spectrum, writing, “Few people in the immigration reform debate are radically shifting their expectations or strategies in the aftermath of Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat. Supporters of legislative immigration reform are still looking to John Boehner to give them a sign in the next few days or weeks that legislation is still alive — although supporters disagree about how likely that is. Opponents of legislative reform say that Cantor’s defeat has killed any chance for “amnesty” until at least 2017. And activists who have pivoted to pressuring President Obama to take executive action to protect unauthorized immigrants say that Cantor’s defeat makes it more obvious that the President needs to act.”
  • Bloomberg Editorial Board: How Republicans Lost Eric Cantor—“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 condemning Cantor for ‘talking out of both sides of his mouth’ on the issue.”

350 Days Since Senate Passed its Immigration Bill; 14 Days Left Until Window of Opportunity Closes