As the House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost in the primaries to relative unknown Tea Partier Dave Brat, many are claiming that the complex relationship between Cantor and Immigration reform resulted in a sort of political murder-suicide. Cantor’s support of immigration reform lost him his seat, and the loss of Cantor’s seat seemingly ended all chances of passing immigration reform in the near future.
Several media outlets tell the story of a Conservative representative who crossed party lines and supported immigration reform, subsequently getting ousted for these efforts. News outlets and fellow representatives have stated that this defeat sends a clear message: attempting to negotiate, to be bipartisan, could cost you your seat. Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) stated that Cantor was targeted not only because he was a leader, but also because he was “part of some compromises” and “negotiation and compromise can get you beat.”
The implication of this analysis is that conservatives are now even less likely to touch immigration reform during primary season, or anytime in the near future. However, from another angle, this loss is the conclusion of a different story.
According to a poll from Politico, voters in Cantor’s district actually support several key tenants to immigration reform, as 72 percent of registered voters, and 70 percent of GOP voters, said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” support immigration reform that would secure borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants and allow undocumented immigrants without criminal records to attain legal status. Cantor himself, however, was quite unpopular, as while only 43 percent of GOP voters polled that they did approve of the job Cantor was doing, 63 percent of total voters, and 49 percent of GOP voters, polled that they did not.
Additionally, other GOP candidates such as Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R- SC) comfortably won their primaries despite their open support for immigration reform. The difference is this: Ellmers and Graham took firm positions on immigration reform while Cantor tried to play both sides.
As Brat began to target Cantor on immigration reform, specifically zeroing in on his alleged support for amnesty, Cantor countered these claims with several mailers boasting phrases such as “Conservative Republican Eric Cantor is Stopping the Obama-Reid Plan to Give Illegal Aliens Amnesty” and “Eric Cantor is the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.” However Cantor in the past worked for immigration reform, drafting legislation similar to the DREAM Act that would offer a path to citizenship for children that were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) accurately pointed to these contrasting approaches, as he stated: “Tonight’s election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration. The Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory. Or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat.”
It thus stands to reason that Cantor’s waffling sealed the nail on his coffin, not his (questionable) support for immigration reform. So while worried Congressional Republicans are likely withdrawing any support for comprehensive immigration reform, this might be the exact wrong thing to do. Through one of the biggest upsets in modern House history, Cantor showed us that supporting new immigration legislation will not make you lose your seat, but political waffling just might.