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People Who Want Immigration Reform Say: Forget Eric Cantor, Just Look at Lindsey Graham People Who Want Immigration Reform Say: Forget Eric Cantor, Just Look ...

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People Who Want Immigration Reform Say: Forget Eric Cantor, Just Look at Lindsey Graham

Two primaries allow you to draw whatever lessons best suit your agenda.

Sen. Lindsey Graham(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
June 11, 2014

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shocking primary defeat to a college professor who casted Cantor as a "pro-amnesty" congressman has left immigration-reform advocates on the defense.

And so when you bring up Cantor's defeat, they respond with: Yes, but what of Lindsey Graham?

The Republican senator, an author of the upper chamber's comprehensive immigration bill, is a proponent of a pathway to citizenship. And he coasted through his South Carolina primary Tuesday night, beating back six tea-party challengers.


"To somehow assume this was a verdict on immigration reform, I think somehow you'd have to justify Senator Graham's success," said Republican Sen. John McCain. "It's a lot more complicated than just the issue of immigration."

Or just ask a Democrat. Top Democratic leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said Republicans "should follow the lead of Lindsey Graham."

"He never backed down, backed up. He kept going forward on this issue. And South Carolina is not known as a very progressive state," Reid said, adding that Washington tends to "overanalyze."

Indeed, the outcomes of both races are actually due to a number of factors, and to pin one's loss or another's success solely on immigration reform would be an exercise in oversimplification.

"If you don't want to do something, any excuse will do," said the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin.

That doesn't mean Cantor's loss won't put the scare in the House Republicans who are open to reform but haven't been pushing for it this year. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, an advocate for reform, said "perception becomes reality."

"This clearly doesn't help our cause … it throws a wrench into it," he said, later adding, "This is a major disruption. This is a huge tsunami in this legislative process that further complicates everything."

To the left of the issue are immigration-reform advocates who are frustrated with the White House delaying executive action on deportations. They are using Cantor's defeat to bolster their argument that there is no more time to delay.

"Eric Cantor's defeat at the [hands of a tea-party extremist proves] what many of us have been saying for quite some time: Immigration reform is dead in this Republican Congress," said, an online Latino advocacy group. "We urge President Obama to face the facts, stand up to the xenophobic and hateful forces in America, and take action to stop deportations immediately. Anything less is unacceptable to Latinos across the country."

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Congress's most vocal proponent of strong executive action on deportations, said on the House floor Wednesday that it's still on House Republicans to move on immigration reform—but that the most realistic window for it to happen is still between now and July 4, primary or not. And absent legislation, the White House will move, Gutierrez said.

"Immigration reform is not dead. It might just be moving to the White House for action if none comes from this House," Gutierrez said.

Either way you cut it, the stakes are high for the GOP, particularly come 2016: "If we don't enact immigration reform, it'd be very difficult to win a national election," McCain said.

Potential 2016 presidential contenders Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul aren't in a rush to draw big lessons from Cantor's defeat. Rubio—who said Cantor's opponent David Brat sounds "very impressive. He actually has an agenda with clear ideas"—was an author of the Senate's comprehensive bill (he concedes that he and Brat differ on how they "talk" about that issue).

"Immigration has never been an issue that is a politically popular one," Rubio said. "There's legitimate concerns about rule of law. I think those have only be exacerbated by this administration's unwillingness to enforce the law. I don't know about the others, I knew that going in. I just legitimately feel this is an issue that's hurting America and needs to be addressed."

Paul said he "didn't follow the race closely enough to say it's about one issue or not." But he did say that there is a path to making immigration reform happen.

"If you put your head in the sand and say you don't want anything done, then you're acknowledging you don't want anything done," Paul said. "Eleven million people have come over here illegally over the past couple decades. If you do nothing another 11 million come, so doing nothing really is not a great answer."

As to what lessons to draw from the Cantor loss and the Graham victory, one reform advocate (and Cantor supporter) say he's not ready to make that determination: "I don't know what message this sends, what message Lindsey Graham's victory sends. It's interesting, we potentially have conflicting messages here," Diaz-Balart said.

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