By Jessica Taylor - 06/12/14 06:00 AM EDT
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking loss Tuesday doesn’t change 2014’s fundamentals for Republicans: they’re in a very good position to add to their House majority and take back the Senate.
But the biggest ramifications of the Virginia Republican’s loss for the GOP could come two years from now.
For months, GOP strategists and pollsters have publicly and privately fretted that a failure to pass any form of immigration reform will complicate efforts to win the White House in 2016, when Hispanic voters will be a key to victory in several states.
If Republicans have a successful 2014, they worry their base will enter the next election cycle with a false sense of hope that the party is well positioned to take back the White House after eights years of President Obama.
“There’s not a gun to their head right now — it’s a ticking time bomb. We’re going to wake up four months from now in a presidential cycle and be in a world of hurt,” said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who’s now advising FWD.us, a pro-reform group backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Speaking at an event with Republican pollsters on Wednesday morning just after Cantor’s loss, he and others pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) victory the same night as proof that incumbent Republicans could support immigration reform and win a primary fight.
Still, it’s highly unlikely immigration reform will now move forward, given how spooked some Republicans are by the House leader’s defeat.
Republicans have had false hope before after a successful midterm election cycle.
After a massive GOP wave in 2010 swept then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from power, the GOP didn’t see a way it couldn’t take out Obama, an unpopular president dealing with high unemployment.
But with a more diverse presidential electorate that’s rapidly growing, Republicans can’t win just on the backs of white voters, an electorate that shrank by 2 percent in the last election cycle.
According to national exit polls, Hispanic voters jumped from 9 percent to 10 percent of the electorate from 2008 to 2012, and Asian voters rose from 2 percent to 3 percent. Mitt Romney lost Hispanics by 44 points and Asian-Americans by 47 points.
And that’s just the national scope — to get to the 270 electoral votes it needs, the GOP has to win states with growing Hispanic and non-white populations like Florida, Colorado and Virginia. A myopic Southern strategy can’t and won’t work in the future.
Republicans believe Hispanics would be receptive to many of their core conservative messages on the economy and the size of government. But if Hispanics think the GOP wants to deport their loved ones or aren’t sympathetic to their concerns, it’s a nonstarter in trying to reach them on other issues.
“We’re not going to win elections by offending the fastest growing minority in the country,” said Jesmer. “This data shows that there is a core group of Hispanics who are open to the Republican message, but they need to know that we care about them and that we understand their problems.”
“Twenty-nine percent of the Hispanic vote just doesn’t cut it anymore,” former Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said at the FWD.us event. “And if we expect to be able to win presidential elections at the national level, we have to make end goals with the Hispanics. This is the first step to opening the Hispanics up to the Republican message.”
The national party, at least initially, seemed to recognize the urgency post-2012.
In its Growth and Opportunity Project autopsy, it backed comprehensive immigration reform. The problem is, the party is still deeply divided on what exactly that means. Is it more border security? More visa enforcement? A pathway to citizenship?
In addition, some of the GOP’s top stars have been open to or supportive of immigration reform — and they have paid a price.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio saw his stock fall after he backed an immigration bill in the Senate. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s comments earlier this year that many illegal immigrants come to the U.S. out of an “act of love” didn’t endear him to the right.
If Bush, Rubio or other pro-immigration-reform Republicans jump into the 2016 race, they could inevitably get pushed to the right in the GOP primary, squandering any credibility they might have had on the issue to a general electorate.
Rubio admitted Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times that “immigration has never been an issue that is a politically popular one” when asked whether Cantor’s loss would spook other Republicans. He kept blame on the Obama administration for failing to enforce border measures but said, “I just legitimately feel like this is an issue that is hurting America and needs to be addressed.”
Republicans know it’s an issue that’s hurting their party, but it’s one that just got a whole lot harder for them to solve thanks to the seismic shift on Capitol Hill.
Cameron Joseph and Abby Smith contributed.