Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Does Cantor’s Loss Mean for Immigration Reform?

US Government

Q: U.S. House of Representatives majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last week suffered a high-profile primary loss to opponent Dave Brat with some attributing Cantor's loss partially to his stance on immigration reform, which Brat attacked as supporting "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. How important of a role did Cantor's stance on immigration play in his defeat? What does his loss mean for the prospects of immigration reform moving forward? Will other Republicans now be more reluctant to support a comprehensive reform measure?

A: Jim Kolbe, member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Republican U.S. congressman from Arizona: "Eric Cantor's surprising loss in his Virginia primary last week had little or nothing to do with immigration or, for that matter, with any other issue. It was about Cantor's alienation from his constituency and the fact that his opponent was the 'not-Cantor' candidate. While Cantor was straddling the immigration issue and losing in Virginia, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was confronting it head on and winning in South Carolina with more than 55 percent of the vote. Nonetheless, Cantor's loss does damage prospects for immigration reform in the House. It energizes opponents and increases the anxiety level of the remaining House leadership who wonder how the votes can be cobbled together for such a difficult issue. Almost certainly, however, leadership will not bring up this volatile issue before the fall election. The best--perhaps last--hope for immigration reform is a broad agreement stitched together in the next several months and then brought to the House floor, followed by a House-Senate conference, passage and presidential approval, all in the lame-duck session. It is tall order given that other issues, notably budget and spending ones, will likely be on the calendar during this same brief session. The unknown factor is whether President Obama will attempt by executive order to change the deportation policy before November as he has warned he might do in the absence of congressional action. Such an action would certainly damage any prospect for legislative action, convincing opponents and fence straddlers alike that the president cannot be trusted to implement the law as written."

A: Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: "Some in the Tea Party will surely portray House Majority Leader Cantor's primary upset as a vindication of 'anti-amnesty' positions. Others are underscoring that immigration had no bearing whatsoever on his defeat. The truth may turn out to be less clear-cut, but it undoubtedly does point to why achieving immigration reform this year will be a difficult proposition. Every single poll out there today is showing majority support for immigration reform and for a pathway to citizenship. Support for--and even leadership on--immigration reform certainly didn't hurt Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the so-called 'Gang of Eight' that marshaled a comprehensive reform bill through the Senate last year, as he coasted to victory in his primary contest. But every single poll is also showing that even among Latinos, immigration is low on the list of priorities people want the administration and politicians to focus on. That not only explains the reticence of House Republicans to lean into the issue before the November midterm elections, but also explains why the more serious challenge facing any Republican incumbent, as has just been proven by Cantor's primary loss, is to avert a challenger from the right. I would therefore draw two conclusions. First, Cantor lost not because he supported immigration reform per se but rather because he flip-flopped back and forth on the issue throughout his primary campaign. Voters were not sure where he stood, and they voted for someone who articulated a clear stance on the subject. And second, perception is reality, and the perception in the Republican Party, and even in mainstream media, is that despite Cantor's lukewarm support for a piecemeal approach to reform, that support cost him his job. This will most likely have a chilling effect on the ability of the Republican leadership to move a bill any time soon."

A: George W. Grayson, former Democratic member of the Virginia legislature, professor of government emeritus at the College of William & Mary and board member of the Center for Immigration Reform: "As a progressive Democrat, I often crossed swords with Eric Cantor when we both served in Virginia's General Assembly in the 1990s. He was called 'over-dog' because of his devotion to corporate interests. Failure to keep in touch with the grassroots spelled his downfall. While celebrating the majority leader's stunning defeat, liberals tend to brand the thousands of small farmers, merchants and regular working people who voted him out as right-wingers, know-nothings or downright racists. This depiction allows progressives to ignore these voters' real or perceived concerns--much as Cantor did. Rightly or wrongly, millions of average Americans see the mushrooming illegal immigrant population as threatening their personal and family's well-being. Millions of blue-collar workers--once the bedrock of the New Deal coalition--now award thumping pluralities to the GOP. Meanwhile, they compete for jobs with Spanish-speaking roofers, carpenters and bricklayers--many of whom work hard despite low wages, insecure conditions, and few if any benefits. The newcomers' influx into the marketplace exerts downward pressure on earnings and injures the shrinking middle class. Fear of the Tea Party and a Cantor-style primary loss dooms immigration reform as long as Republicans control one house of Congress. Even as Democrats and other engaged groups seek to act humanely on the immigration issue, they must recognize the plight of millions of legal African-Americans, Latinos and Anglos--or risk the same fate as Cantor in a general election."

A: G. Philip Hughes, senior director at the White House Writers Group: "From the analyses I've read of the Cantor-Brat congressional primary race, the immigration issue was a factor--but not the decisive factor--in David Brat's upset victory. Other factors, it seems, were more important: Cantor's increasingly national role in the Republican congressional leadership, which reduced his time and in-person visibility in his Richmond-area district; the fact that Republicans in the Virginia legislature, seeking to make Cantor's district more secure, added new areas to it in redistricting to which Cantor's ties were still weak; and Brat's success in identifying Cantor with an 'establishment' that was 'soft' on Wall Street excesses. Other Republican candidates favoring immigration reform and facing primary challenges--notably South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham--won their primaries handily. It seems obvious that it was less Cantor's stance on immigration than the current crisis at the Mexican border, with tens of thousands of undocumented minors arriving suddenly--a more than 800 percent increase over 2013 juvenile arrivals--that has raised the salience of the immigration issue in 2014. For most Democrats, the immigration issue is simpler, since it handily fits into the 'grievance group politics' paradigm that has propelled the party for the last half-century--and the new arrivals promise mainly to swell Democratic voter rolls once they're legalized. For Republicans, the issue is trickier, involving a balancing of humanitarian, legal, regional and national interests, and constituent sentiment--and how Republican candidates will 'play' it will depend on their reading of voter sentiment, constituency by constituency, in these mid-term elections."

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