Eric Cantor’s Loss Won’t Kill Immigration Reform

Reform always faced a tough path in the House. And there are plenty of other political lessons to look at.

Immigration reform activists demonstrate to end deportations on April 5, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
June 10, 2014, 7 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
HE ‘WILL NEVER BE PRESIDENT’
Warren Goes After Trump Yet Again
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage. 

FIRST CHANGE IN FOUR DECADES
Congress Passes Chemical Regulations Overhaul
11 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."

Source:
LEVERAGE
Kasich Tells His Delegates to Remain Pledged to Him
14 hours ago
THE LATEST

Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."

Source:
LOST BY HALF A PERCENTAGE POINT
Sanders Wants a Recount in Kentucky
16 hours ago
THE LATEST

Bernie Sanders "signed a letter Tuesday morning requesting a full and complete check and recanvass of the election results in Kentucky ... where he trails Hillary Clinton by less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote. The Sanders campaign said it has asked the Kentucky secretary of state to have election officials review electronic voting machines and absentee ballots from last week's primary in each of the state's 120 counties.

Source:
TIES TO CLINTON GLOBAL INITIATIVE
McAuliffe Under Investigation for Fundraising
19 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) “is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the FBI and … the Justice Department” for potentially improper contributions to his 2013 campaign, including while he was a Clinton Global Initiative board member. ... Among the McAuliffe donations that drew the interest of the investigators was $120,000 from” former Chinese legislator Wang Wenliang. “U.S. election law prohibits foreign nationals from donating to … elections. … But Wang holds U.S. permanent resident status.”

Source:
×