Republican pollsters have some explaining to do on immigration. They say that almost three-fourths of Republican voters are adamant that Congress should take "immediate action to fix" immigration, and that more than two-thirds of Republicans think the current population of undocumented immigrants should be given some type of legal status.
So how do they explain Eric Cantor? Just last week, Cantor sent a memo to House Republicans outlining the floor agenda for June. Immigration wasn't on the list, supposedly because it was too controversial for Republican lawmakers to handle. And despite his caution on the topic, Cantor is now a lame duck.
"I would caution against drawing any easy shorthand conclusions that immigration was the thing that drove the election in Cantor's district yesterday," said Jon Lerner, founder of Basswood Research, who has done polling for Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C. "I don't know that there's much evidence to support that notion."
Lerner acknowledged that he has done no polling in Cantor's district. But, he added, "I've been involved in many years in many tea-party insurgents against incumbents. I don't know of a single race in which the immigration issue played a significant part in those tea-party victories. I'm not being entirely dismissive, but it is probably too pat an answer to say that immigration probably played a big role in it."
Pivoting away from Cantor, Whit Ayres, head of Northstar Opinion Research, said Tuesday's easy win for a Lindsey Graham—a pro-immigration reform senator from South Carolina—is "a much better reflection" of immigration as viewed by the whole of the GOP voting bloc. Graham, after all, campaigned on his support for a Senate bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. His nickname among those who oppose the Senate bill is "Grahamnesty."
"Let's not get caught up with just the news of yesterday," Ayres added, becoming increasingly defensive as reporters peppered him with questions about why Republicans aren't acting on immigration.
Ayres and Lerner were part of an array of GOP pollsters gathered at a Capitol Hill hotel Wednesday, hours after the House majority leader from Virginia suffered a stunning defeat in his primary election. The event was supposed to be an opportunity for operatives with serious conservative street cred—folks who polled for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and worked for the likes of Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa—to explain to Republican lawmakers that it makes sense to support some type of legalization for people here illegally.
Um, right. Cantor's loss, rightly or wrongly, is considered to be a direct result of his opponent Dave Brat's assertions that he is a pro-amnesty lawmaker. That's far from the truth, but never you mind. The argument obviously persuaded more than a few voters to oust him.
House GOP leaders have put off dealing with immigration all year, saying that they need to get past the primaries before they can tackle a topic that could put their incumbent members in jeopardy. House Speaker Boehner has been open about saying he wants to act on the issue, but he knows that his members have nothing but grief to face from their core voters if they vote on anything that relaxes the restrictions on unauthorized immigrants.
Cantor's defeat won't help, even if most of the primaries are over. Immigration lobbyists say they have spent inordinate hours on Capitol Hill trying to convince on-the-fence Republicans that they shouldn't fear supporting an immigration plan that might allow some people without papers to become legal. These lobbyists say about half of the GOP House members "don't support it, but aren't against it either."
In other words, these lawmakers might vote for an immigration-reform bill if all the political signals are pointing in the right direction and a bunch of their colleagues vote for it, too. These aren't brave souls. They aren't going to stick their necks out after watching what happened to their majority leader.
The GOP pollsters presented data showing the opposite view point using a series of public-opinion surveys at the behest of FWD.us, a pro-immigration reform group spearheaded by Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg. Given that Zuckerberg is supportive of immigration reform, a reporter asked them, "Why should we trust you on this?"
David Winston, president of The Winston Group, responded curtly: "If I may, it's because that's what the data says."
"What I'm saying is simply the fact, is that we have a huge problem winning national elections. It was the problem yesterday. It is still the problem today," said Rob Jesmer, an established Republican operative who now works for FWD.us.
The group's results show that with one-fourth of Hispanics already committed as Republicans, another one-fourth of Hispanic voters are up for grabs if Republicans take a more moderate stance on immigration. They also say more than half of all Republican voters don't believe that a 13-year path to citizenship along the lines of a Senate-passed bill is "amnesty."
How to explain Cantor? "The dust is still settling," said B.J. Martino of The Tarrance Group.
"This data is not about Eric Cantor. It's about the long-term future of the Republican Party," said Randy Gutermuth, chief operating officer of American Viewpoint.
But GOP members looking at Cantor's defeat may not be worrying about their long-term future.
Here are the polling firms participating in the project:
American Viewpoint (clients: the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee);
Basswood Research (clients: Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.);
GS Strategy Group (former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie);
Moore Information (clients: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, National Pork Board, and National Biodiesel Board);
Northstar Opinion Research (clients: Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.);
The Polling Company (clients: FreedomWorks, The Heritage Foundation), Public Opinion Strategies (lead pollster for Mitt Romney in 2012);
The Tarrance Group (client: House Speaker John Boehner);
Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research (client: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas);
The Winston Group (former staffer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation).