What Eric Cantor’s Defeat Means for Hillary Clinton

The Democratic presidential prospect could have demographics on her side.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles before speaking at the World Bank May 14, 2014 in Washington, DC. Clinton and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim joined others to speak about women's rights. 
AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Brownstein
June 12, 2014, 5 p.m.

The best news for Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton this week wasn’t the mostly pos­it­ive re­views for her mem­oir Hard Choices. It was the hard fall taken by House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor when he was ous­ted by a tea-party chal­lenger who de­nounced him as in­suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive, par­tic­u­larly on im­mig­ra­tion.

The Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an’s de­feat vir­tu­ally ex­tin­guishes the already flick­er­ing chances that House Re­pub­lic­ans will pass im­mig­ra­tion re­form be­fore the 2014 elec­tion, and even dims the odds that the cham­ber will take ac­tion be­fore 2016. And that sig­ni­fic­antly im­proves pro­spects in the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion for Clin­ton, or any oth­er Demo­crat.

Can­tor’s de­feat cap­tures the di­ver­gence of in­terests between con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and the strategists, donors, and act­iv­ists in the GOP’s pres­id­en­tial wing. After Mitt Rom­ney lost in 2012 by more than 5 mil­lion votes, des­pite win­ning 59 per­cent of whites — a great­er per­cent­age than voted for Ron­ald Re­agan dur­ing his 1980 land­slide — many GOP thinkers con­cluded that the party was un­likely to re­cap­ture the White House without gain­ing ground with minor­it­ies, par­tic­u­larly His­pan­ics and Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans. Re­pub­lic­ans in this camp be­lieve that passing im­mig­ra­tion re­form is the threshold the GOP must cross be­fore these grow­ing com­munit­ies will con­sider the party’s po­s­i­tions on any­thing else.

But those ar­gu­ments have not moved most con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, es­pe­cially those in the House. The House GOP has es­sen­tially bar­ri­caded it­self against the demo­graph­ic trends that have helped Demo­crats win the pop­u­lar vote in five of the past six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions: 80 per­cent of House Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent dis­tricts in which the white share of the pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeds the na­tion­al av­er­age. Can­tor was one.

Polls con­sist­ently show that even most Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans be­lieve that im­mig­rants here il­leg­ally should be al­lowed to stay — and either be­come cit­izens or, at least, work openly. But many Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ors be­lieve that, as with gun con­trol, those who op­pose leg­al­iz­a­tion vote on the is­sue more con­sist­ently than those who sup­port it, es­pe­cially in the con­ser­vat­ive dis­tricts they mostly rep­res­ent. That con­vic­tion is cer­tain to be ce­men­ted by Can­tor’s loss to the un­der­fun­ded Dave Brat, who lashed him for cham­pi­on­ing “am­nesty,” des­pite Can­tor’s sup­port for only very lim­ited re­forms.

As in 2012 — when Rom­ney made a crip­pling com­mit­ment to “self-de­port­a­tion” for those in the coun­try il­leg­ally — GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates could be pulled to the right if im­mig­ra­tion re­form isn’t re­solved le­gis­lat­ively be­fore the 2016 primar­ies. Can­tor’s loss may also prompt Obama to take more ag­gress­ive ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to provide re­lief for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Re­pub­lic­an hope­fuls will feel enorm­ous pres­sure to op­pose that, as well. 

Both of those de­vel­op­ments would lim­it the GOP’s abil­ity to im­prove its 2016 per­form­ance among minor­it­ies, who have provided Demo­crats al­most ex­actly four-fifths of their votes in all but one pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since 1976. And that would mean the GOP could re­cap­ture the White House only if it ex­pands its mar­gins among whites or in­creases that group’s share of the vote by rais­ing turnout.

Neither would be easy. The white share of the vote has de­creased in every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion since 1980 ex­cept one, and minor­ity-pop­u­la­tion growth vir­tu­ally en­sures its con­tin­ued de­cline. Dis­en­chant­ment with Obama might of­fer the GOP a some­what bet­ter chance of in­creas­ing its mar­gin with whites. Polls show that only about one-fourth of whites or few­er be­lieve they have be­nefited from either Obama’s eco­nom­ic agenda or his health care plan. And the stub­bornly slow eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery — plus a series of gov­ern­ment mis­steps, in­clud­ing the health care rol­lout — have moved white voters, in par­tic­u­lar, from re­ceptiv­ity to­ward great­er fed­er­al act­iv­ism after George W. Bush’s pres­id­ency to­ward a re­newed skep­ti­cism. “Obama has a taken a ma­jor­ity view­point that we need a more ag­gress­ive gov­ern­ment “¦ and gone 180 de­grees in the oth­er dir­ec­tion,” says GOP poll­ster Glen Bol­ger.

Which re­turns us to Hil­lary Clin­ton. If she runs, the re­sur­fa­cing doubts about Wash­ing­ton, par­tic­u­larly among whites, would present her with a prob­lem sim­il­ar to Bill Clin­ton’s in 1992: for­mu­lat­ing an agenda that con­vinces skep­tic­al voters they will be­ne­fit from more gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism, rather than less — as Re­pub­lic­ans will ar­gue. But even so, it’s a stiff bet for Re­pub­lic­ans to gamble 2016 on hold­ing Clin­ton be­low the 39 per­cent of whites Obama car­ried in 2012. 

In that mea­ger show­ing, Obama lost white wo­men by 14 per­cent­age points, the biggest de­fi­cit for any Demo­crat since Re­agan’s second land­slide in 1984. As the first fe­male pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, Clin­ton might eas­ily do bet­ter, per­haps much bet­ter. And be­cause Obama already fell so far with white men, there might not be much fur­ther for her to fall. Sim­ul­tan­eously, the power of the Clin­ton name equips her to con­tin­ue gen­er­at­ing lop­sided mar­gins with minor­ity voters — un­less Re­pub­lic­ans find ways to reach them. 

Even if most Amer­ic­ans re­main skep­tic­al of act­iv­ist gov­ern­ment after Obama’s pres­id­ency, Clin­ton in all these ways would re­main uniquely po­si­tioned to ex­ploit the GOP’s dif­fi­culties with at­tract­ing voters bey­ond its older, white, non­urb­an base. Yet Can­tor’s de­feat demon­strates again how much of that base will fiercely res­ist policies that might build a broad­er co­ali­tion. “Elec­tions are a com­bin­a­tion of mes­sage and math,” ac­know­ledges Bol­ger. “The mes­sage is a little more dif­fi­cult for Clin­ton, and the math is a little bit easi­er.” That’s es­pe­cially true after the Vir­gin­ia earth­quake.

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