Did you know that Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) won big in his primary on Tuesday night, despite the fact he co-authored the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill?
How about Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), who beat back a conservative primary challenger last month who slammed her for backing immigration reform?
Supporters of immigration reform are pointing to those results, and downplaying Eric Cantor’s stunning defeat, as proof that Republicans can still back reform and survive a primary challenge from the right.
“His loss didn’t have anything to do with immigration reform,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D), Cantor’s Virginia counterpart. “I live in Richmond, his district is right across the street from my house. It was explained by a lot of factors, but immigration reform is not the reason.”
That’s overstating it. Several factors point to the opposite conclusion: that immigration reform hurt Cantor in his conservative district, or at least his handling of it did. But dissecting his loss will be difficult. With no exit polls, there’s little to show exactly why voters decided to boot the majority leader from office. And at present, we don’t know how many Democrats or independents might have voted to sink Cantor in the primary, which was open to all political parties.
But immigration has still risen to the top of the political conversation after his defeat, and there are clear reasons for that.
Last year, Cantor expressed support for some modest reform measures, including a bill that would offer a path to citizenship to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Earlier this year, he hailed broader immigration reform as a potential “economic boon.”
Cantor, however, never put forth a bill or pushed for a floor vote to be held on any immigration measures. On the contrary, in many occasions he acted as an obstacle on the issue. Nevertheless, Cantor’s position still opened him up to attacks from his opponent, David Brat, who ripped the House majority leader as a proponent of “amnesty.”
“It’s the most symbolic issue that captures the differences between myself and Eric Cantor in this race,” Brat said on Fox News on Tuesday night.
In the final weeks of his campaign, Cantor’s team scrambled to portray him as an immigration hardliner who fought against the Senate immigration-reform bill and President Obama’s policies. Yet Brat’s message seemed to resonate in conservative circles. Although he was outspent 26-to-1, Brat’s candidacy was bolstered by the likes of conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham, who made him a champion for the anti-immigration reform cause.
Cantor wouldn't comment on why he lost at a press conference on Wednesday. But he said that he has always believed immigration issues, like border security and undocumented youth, should be dealt with in a step-by-step manner.
“My position on immigration has not changed," he said. "I don’t believe in this 'my way or the highway' approach that the president has taken … There should be and is common ground, if we would just allow ourselves to work together.”
While several pieces of evidence show immigration helped sink Cantor, advocates for immigration reform said that if he had fully embraced immigration reform, instead of waffling, he would have prevailed.
Support for comprehensive immigration reform, “can be a positive for Republicans who are all in in terms of their messaging of their campaigns,” GOP pollster B.J. Martino told reporters on Wednesday at a briefing organized by the pro-reform group FWD.us.
“There was no indication that there was much strong messaging coming from [them],” Martino said of Cantor’s campaign team. By contrast, Graham talked about it “consistently and loudly” during his primary bid.
Like Cantor, Graham and Ellmers are from southern states, faced underfunded opponents, and immigration was a salient issue in their races. But Graham and Ellmers were not afraid to run on their immigration records. Graham never backed away from his support for the Senate bill. Ellmers even called Ingraham’s stance on immigration “ignorant” during a live interview. Both were renominated.
“That is a much better test of how that issue plays out in a Republican primary … than anything that happened in Virginia seven,” said Whit Ayres, a pollster who counts Graham as a client.
With regards to Cantor’s race, advocates pointed to other factors, such as Cantor’s antagonistic relationship with grassroots activists in Virginia and overall dissatisfaction with Congress. And they pointed to recent polling as proof that the race wasn’t a referendum on the immigration issue.
A survey conducted by the liberal-leaning firm Public Policy Polling showed that almost three-quarters of registered voters in his district back immigration reform that contains legal status for undocumented migrants. Nationwide, Republicans voters believe that a comprehensive immigration reform plan is “fair and equitable” as opposed to “amnesty” 57-23 percent, according to a poll commissioned by FWD.us.
But questions remained about the intensity of support for immigration on the Republican side. Turnout was in Cantor’s primary was very low, and most of those who showed up appeared to have bought, or at least tolerated, Brat’s argument on immigration.
Republicans running for seats in the House will surely dissect Cantor’s upset loss in the weeks to come. They could very well conclude that backing immigration poses too big a short-term political risk to move ahead with an overhaul any time soon.
Cantor was seen among some conservatives as a figure willing to compromise with President Obama on issues like immigration and government spending.
"And that was used against him,” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said on CNN. “And so the message to us is, negotiation or compromise could get you beat."
But advocates are trying to argue that supporting immigration reform isn’t just safe, it’s necessary to prevent the damage the Republican Party could suffer in 2016 if they continue to block a bill.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Rob Jesmer, the campaign director at FWD.us and a former Senate Republican campaign operative. “We are going to wake up four months from now in a presidential cycle…Our argument is that we have to deal with it.”
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.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.