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 this year 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 partyer 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. Regardless of what the polling says (which is that comprehensive immigration reform is popular, even in Cantor’s district), 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 much 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 care only so much about the issue. Most immigration reform backers expect it to pass eventually, but they privately say Cantor’s loss could be a final coffin nail in 2014, a midterm election year when conservatives tend to vote at higher rates. Even the DREAM Act — which once seemed a relatively easy lift because it is 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. Diaz-Balart’s Democratic counterpart, Miami Rep. Joe Garcia, said he is not giving up on immigration reform this year, either. And he warned Republicans that, in blocking the issue in the House last year and this year, it will only hurt their party among Hispanics, 50,000 of whom become U.S. citizens monthly. Garcia acknowledged that immigration reform isn’t the top concern among Hispanics, but it is important nonetheless. “There are a lot of Republicans who look at this and walk away. But you walk away from this, you’re walking away from a majority of the American public,” Garcia said. “You’re walking away from a presidential election in 2016. You’re walking away from new revenue for our economy,” he said. “You’re walking away from people who are an essential part of our workforce in this country. You’re walking away from common-sense policy that is supported by almost every interest group in the country, except a few.”
Garcia is carrying a House variation of the bipartisan immigration-reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013. That bill, though, proved to be a cautionary tale to Republican leaders because it helped damage the standing of yet another Miami politician, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who suffered such conservative blowback that it dimmed his 2016 presidential prospects in the GOP.
That measure didn’t even get taken up in the House last year, despite the hopes and expectations of the proposal’s backers. Under Congress’ calendar, there is limited time to take up the measure. Most supporters don’t want it taken up before the August recess because it would give opponents too much time to batter the proposal, as happened with Obamacare. That leaves only a few days in September and October until the election, leaving relatively little time. House Speaker John Boehner could take up the bill, but many Republicans say it would cost him his leadership post. Cantor obviously realized he had a problem. Immigration was a big part of it. He released fliers in the final weeks of the primary campaign bragging about standing up to President Barack Obama and fighting the bipartisan Senate bill, which he said 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 percolating. Maybe Cantor’s campaign team was too sloppy, arrogant or out of touch. Enough voters obviously didn’t like Cantor enough. Next to Cantor, Brat looked like the plain-spoken truth-teller who, even if you disagreed with him, was clear in his beliefs and positions. A survey by liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling showed 63 percent of voters in Cantor’s district had a negative impression of him, compared with only 30 percent who had a positive impression. And comprehensive immigration reform, as polled, was supported by 72 percent compared with 23 percent who opposed it. But it is also clear one of Brat’s positions was taking a hard line on immigration reform. He used it as a cudgel to slay one of the giants of this Congress. And Cantor was obviously scared over the issue, reversing himself and striking a far more conservative position than in recent months. According to Fox News, Cantor said he told Obama in April: “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. “You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind,” Garcia said. “And that is exactly what happened.”