Cantor loss immigration reform death knell

Getty Images

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) shocking defeat dooms any lingering chance of immigration reform.

Cantor lost to professor Dave Brat by a double-digit margin Tuesday night, after the underdog challenger made the GOP leader’s support for some immigration reform proposals a major focus of his campaign. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Now, Republicans on both sides of the issue say the loss will terrify House members who'd begun to tentatively move toward compromise.

"I don't think you're going to be hearing anybody else talk about immigration reform anytime soon," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, who supports reform efforts. "The narrative is going to be that it's immigration reform that got him canned. It is certainly a 'come to Jesus' moment for some people in the party."

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the co-author of Arizona's controversial immigration law and a fierce critic of giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status, said the results showed how dangerous it is for Republicans to cross their base and embrace immigration reform.

"On immigration, policy voters have a sense they understand perfectly well what their beliefs are. When a leader in Congress declares he knows best, and that declaration is at odds with his constituents; that's going to be a hard sell. People who hold positions on the immigration issue hold them firmly," he told The Hill Tuesday evening. 

"Mr. Cantor was pushing for it. With respect to the immigration issue he may have been a little too tone-deaf for his constituents,” Kobach continued. “Republican members of Congress deviate from the Republican electorate at their own peril on this issue."

Pro-reform Republicans fret that Kobach is right, and while they say Cantor's loss had many causes, they admit it will cause skittish Republicans to bolt outright.

Cantor had worked hard behind the scenes to try to help House Republicans craft organizing principles for reform. But the conference remains deeply divided on a way forward, and Cantor and House GOP leaders had largely abandoned efforts at passing comprehensive legislation any time soon. His defeat is a final, sturdy nail in the coffin of bipartisan legislation that buries the issue for the foreseeable future.

Border hawks were quick to cheer the news of Cantor’s downfall. 

"The wage-earning voters of Rep. Cantor's district apparently felt abandoned by his immigration positions that virtually ignored their anxiety about stagnant wages and high unemployment and that projected primary concern for unlawful foreign visitors and employers seeking more foreign workers," said NumbersUSA President Roy Beck in a statement. "Professor Brat's insistence that immigration policies should focus on the needs of American workers and taxpayers provided a sharp contrast to the corporate-driven vision of the top echelon of the Republican Party that Rep. Cantor exemplified."

Pro-reform advocates in both parties argue that Cantor, who'd never embraced a full plan for reform and argued in the campaign that he'd opposed President Obama's "amnesty" plan, was hurt more by dodging on the issue than taking too liberal a stand on it. 

To bolster their argument on Tuesday evening, they pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who won his primary by a big margin the same night after helping to craft the Senate immigration reform bill. But they do admit Cantor’s loss is a major setback.

"The message is, you need to stake out clear positions on issues and communicate them with your constituents," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, who has helped pro-reform Republican groups.  

But even those who argue Cantor's loss wasn't chiefly due to immigration reform admit it's a setback for the cause.

"What concerns me as a supporter of immigration reform is this is going to overshadow the fact that someone like Graham who voted for the deal and never took anything for granted from day one is going to win," Walsh added.