What does Eric Cantor’s primary loss mean for comprehensive immigration reform?

Eric Cantor is not having a good night.
Eric Cantor is not having a good night.

An hour ago, I had to stop the treadmill before I fell off it and broke my neck. See, I found out in the middle of my evening run that Representative Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader who had successfully held his seat for seven seats, was brutally trounced in his primary race tonight. Cantor lost the GOP primary election, and therefore his seat and his position as House Majority Leader, by 10 points to a politically unknown economics professor named Dave Brat.

Rep. Eric Cantor may be one of the top GOP legislators in DC, but he’s also one of the most conservative, and he hasn’t won many fans among moderates or the Left. So, tonight, a lot of progressive Democrats are gleefully celebrating Cantor’s surprise ouster.

But, before, we pop open that champagne, let’s stop and think about what this unexpected defeat might mean for national politics, and particularly an issue of deep significance tot his blog: comprehensive immigration reform.

One thing is clear about tonight’s primary outcome: political pundits totally didn’t see this one coming. Earlier tonight, Cantor conceded his primary race to the sound of Washington’s collective jaw dropping.

But, in retrospect, the writing may have been on the wall. Cantor is one of the most conservative and Right-leaning Republicans in Washington, but this past year he found himself in a difficult position. Whereas comprehensive immigration reform enjoys popular support in national polls, including among Republican voters, many Tea Party voters oppose reforms that grant what they perceive to be “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Mainstream Republicans had signaled last year a shift in their position on immigration as part of their outreach to growing populations of Latino voters; immigration reform advocates had seen this as a possible opening in striking a deal towards comprehensive immigration reform.

As part of those efforts to appeal to Latino voters on the issue of immigration, a group of GOP congressmen had authored a bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who serve in the military; last week, Cantor reaffirmed his support of that bill, which Tea Party faithfuls have heavily criticized as “amnesty”. Cantor has also expressed support for a bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers — undocumented children brought into the country by their parents.

This reluctant and somewhat mealy-mouthed support for immigration reform — itself not exactly the most rousing endorsement — may nonetheless have been Cantor’s undoing. For most of his primary race, Tea Party opponent Dave Brat drew a contrast between himself and Cantor predominantly on the issue of immigration and “amnesty”. Brat criticized Cantor for “bobbing and weaving” on the issue of immigration, and blamed his stance for a “flood” of undocumented immigrants entering the country. He told Breitbart News that earlier this week that this primary race was “the last chance [to stop amnesty]”.

Indeed, despite Cantor’s efforts to “clarify” his stance on immigration reform by sending $5.4 million dollars worth of flyers to constituents declaring his staunch opposition to any form of immigration amnesty, Cantor may have been defeated precisely because Republican voters in his district didn’t believe he was sufficiently against immigration reform. Tonight, moments after conceding his race, Rightwing firebrand Michelle Malkin declared his ouster a victory for “anti-amnesty”:

So, if nothing else, tonight’s upset victory seems poised to reaffirm to Republicans that they cannot have it both ways on immigration reform, that to support immigration reform is to put oneself at risk for primary challenges in strongly Tea Party districts.

Tonight’s defeat for Eric Cantor may seem great right now, but it might also be the final death knell for comprehensive immigration reform in the coming years. I’m not big fan of Cantor, but at least there was a certain political logic to him that we could appeal to; not so much with the Tea Party. Republicans may not have been serious about immigration reform before, but now wavering GOP legislators have all the evidence they need to steer clear of the immigration issue. Tonight’s primary might actually push Republicans farther Right — if such a thing is possible — on immigration.

So let’s not celebrate too early; Cantor’s loss might actually be a loss for immigration reform advocates, too. Only time will tell, but I’m already contemplating a donation to Dave Brat’s equally unknown Democratic challenger, Jack Trammell, a guy whose Congressional campaign doesn’t even have its own website yet, only a Facebook page.


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