The moments after Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shocking primary defeat are sort of like the political equivalent of a post-Apocalyptic event that no one thought would actually happen. And now when the figurative dust settles and everyone wraps their minds around this "new normal," immigration-reform backers will have to beat back the perception that support for immigration proposals is what brought down one of the most powerful men in Washington.
Immigration was a central focus of Cantor's primary campaign, as the new-Republican candidate for Virginia's 7th District seat, David Brat, accused Cantor of pushing "amnesty." Cantor's retort was that he blocked the "Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty."
In reality, Cantor was no friend to the most vocal immigration-reform advocates — there were regular protests at his D.C.-area condo, and immigration activists even crashed his somber postelection "party" Tuesday, chanting "What do we want? Immigration reform! When do we want it? Now!" He was viewed as standing in the way of moving reform through the House.
But at the same time, advocates remained somewhat hopeful as Cantor has expressed support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children and those enlisting in the military. He backed the House GOP immigration principles, released earlier this year, which included legalization.
Now that Cantor has been defeated handily, many will worry about the chilling effect on other Republicans who are open to modest reform but are otherwise weary of the political consequences.
There are plenty of reasons not to pin Cantor's loss entirely on his support for particular immigration proposals (his absence from his newly redrawn district, taking Brat's challenge seriously too late, etc.). But there's a difference between what led to Cantor's defeat and what lessons will be drawn from his very high-profile loss. Immigration reform, an already fraught issue that has divided the GOP, will take center stage.
"Immigration reform is toast. Again," said former RNC Communications Director and strategist Lisa Camooso Miller. "Cantor offered a commonsense proposal that made good sense for the country. As a result, the radical right wing of the Republican Party has taken him down."
But prospects for reform were already pretty terrible for the remainder of the year. President Obama is holding off on executive actions related to deportation policy until after August, in the hopes that the House will do something once primary season concludes but before the generals heat up. And GOP advocates have quietly been gauging support for doing something this summer. But House leadership aides this week signaled that the status of reform remains the same as it did months ago, and leadership hadn't changed its tone, either.
Naturally, backers of reform in the House aren't ready to concede defeat quite yet. Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for one, has insisted that immigration reform is not dead in light of Cantor's loss.
And it's not like Cantor's loss was Tuesday night's only notable political event. While Cantor fell to Brat, mosey further on down to South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham easily coasted in his primary, beating back six — yes, six — tea-party challengers and avoided a runoff.
Graham, as you recall, was one of the architects of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill. He's been a vocal proponent of immigration reform and backs a pathway to citizenship (not just for dreamers). And Graham's victory is being held up by advocates as a reason to wholeheartedly embrace reform.
"Tonight's election shows the Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration," Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who helped write the Senate's immigration bill, said in a statement. "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."
Democrats will attempt to pin the loss as a rejection of Cantor himself, rather than of immigration reform. A new poll to be released Wednesday by left-learning Public Policy Polling will show that 72 percent of voters in his district support immigration reform, including a majority of Republicans. At the same time, voters largely disapproved of Cantor and Republican House leadership.
"Cantor didn't lose because of immigration," PPP director Tom Jensen said in a memo. "He lost because of the deep unpopularity of both himself personally and of the Republican House leadership."
Or take Rep. Renee Ellmers's North Carolina primary victory last month; she had also attracted an underfunded challenger from the right, who focused on her support for an immigration proposal to offer legalization to undocumented minors. That race had worried advocates for reform that her loss would likewise hurt their cause.
"There are a lot of members who have been afraid [to back reform], but there have also been members who have succeeded in their primaries," Bipartisan Policy Center's Theresa Cardinal Brown said shortly after Cantor's defeat. "It's kind of unclear. It may be too soon to tell."
Nearly all of political Washington, not just immigration watchers, was caught off-guard by Cantor's defeat. And now everyone is trying to figure it out.