The No. 2 Republican in the U.S. House is a goner.
And amid the ashes of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat Tuesday night, comprehensive immigration reform smolders.
This is not to say that immigration reform would have passed if the Virginia Republican had not been the first House majority leader to lose since 1899. Immigration reform was already endangered.
But Cantor’s defeat to tea partier David Brat was so intertwined with immigration — “amnesty” and “illegal aliens” — that the few fence-sitters in the GOP-led House are going to flock back to the politically right side of the divide.
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Regardless of what the polling says (and note that Cantor's pollster said he was winning big), Brat’s win and Cantor’s loss is now a powerful symbol, a rallying cry. That matters in politics.
“Is it absolutely devastating? I don’t know,” said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican who for years has tried to get his party to tackle the issue.
“I’m sad. I’m very, very sad. Eric is a close personal friend,” Diaz-Balart said. “As far as immigration reform goes, I’ll be speaking to my colleagues and figuring out where they are and whether this changes everything.”
The matter of his beliefs aside, Diaz-Balart isn’t like most members of Congress because his district is heavily Hispanic. Most Republican-held House districts are lily white, conservative and far less-inclined to support immigration reform.
The white non-Hispanics who are the activist base of the GOP are the bulwark of opposition to immigration reform. GOP moderates and the business class only care so much about the issue.
Even the DREAM Act — which once seemed a relatively easy lift because it’s aimed at illegal-immigrant children brought to this country through no fault of their own — now looks like an increasingly heavy lift.
“Once you announced that kids are welcome, they're going to head in,” Brat, an economics professor and once a political unknown, told Breitbart News on Sunday.
Cantor obviously realized he had a problem. And that immigration was a big part of it. He released fliers bragging about standing up to Obama and fighting the bipartisan Senate bill, passed last year, that would “give illegal aliens amnesty.”
Did Cantor lose only because of immigration? Probably not. Redistricting might have played a role. There’s an anti-incumbent mood that seems to be percolating. Maybe Cantor's campaign team was too sloppy, arrogant or out of touch. Enough voters obviously didn’t liked Cantor enough. Next to Cantor, Brat could have looked like the plain-spoken truth-teller who, even if you disagreed with him, was clear in his beliefs and positions.
All of that might have played a role.
But it’s also clear that one of Brat's positions was taking a hardline on immigration reform. And he used it as a cudgel to slay one of the giants of this Congress.
According to FOX news, Cantor said he told President Obama in April that “House Republicans do not support Senate Democrats’ immigration bill and amnesty efforts, and it will not be considered in the House.”
Now, it looks like that’s the fate of every comprehensive immigration-reform effort.