House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat in the Republican primary Tuesday night is being blamed on his lack of conviction on immigration reform.
Conservative challenger David Brat, who won with over 55 percent of the vote, hammered Cantor during the campaign for not being tough enough on the immigration. Many pundits believe that Cantor’s defeat is the final nail in the coffin for immigration reform this year.
In reality, though, immigration reform already was a nonstarter under Cantor’s leadership in the House. So it’s hard to see how his defeat will change the calculus for reform this year.
Initially, Cantor appeared to embrace some liberal immigration policies, namely allowing young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to earn citizenship. But as we noted in an earlier post this morning, Cantor later waffled on those policies, especially after rank-and-file Republicans had a tepid reaction to a set of immigration reform principles distributed by House leadership in January.
After receiving heavy criticism from Brat on immigration, Cantor recanted even further. He scrapped a vote last month on a measure that would have offered legal status for young undocumented immigrants who served in the military, even though he said he supported the idea. And he failed to include immigration on the House agenda set for June.
While Speaker John Boehner at least paid lip service to the immigration issue, Cantor’s campaign was busy sending out mailers bragging about his efforts to stop the “Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty.”
“Let’s be clear: Eric Cantor was no friend of immigration reform,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “He’s been the main person in the House blocking a vote on citizenship, and he proudly campaigned on his opposition to reform.”
The question now is what comes next? Supporters of immigration reform say Brat’s upset victory in Tuesday’s primary could indicate a rightward shift for the Republican Party on immigration leading up to the 2016 presidential election. If that’s the case, the GOP could risk repeating the same mistakes they made two years ago, when Mitt Romney embraced a policy of “self-deportation.”
But it might be too early to read the tea leaves. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who helped write the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, romped to victory Tuesday night in crimson-colored South Carolina.
The truth is, the prospects for immigration reform were weak before Cantor lost. There are just over two dozen legislative days left before August recess, President Obama is threatening to take executive action on deportations after that, and the midterms loom in the fall.
All of that made it puzzling that some Democrats, as well as pro- and anti-immigration reform activists think it’s plausible that Cantor would perform an abrupt 180 as a lame duck and let a bill hit the floor.
The issue has been dead in Congress for months and Cantor has displayed almost no interest in reviving it. Now that he has lost, none of that is likely to change.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.