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.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during a markup session for the immigration reform legislation in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill May 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. 
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Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
June 11, 2014, 10:22 a.m.

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 Presente.org, 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.

Michael Catalini contributed to this article.
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