The jury’s still out on whether Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary Tuesday night because he was perceived by voters to be in support of rewriting the country’s immigration laws.
But by Wednesday afternoon, there was at least growing consensus that the Virginia Republican’s defeat at the hands of tea-party-backed challenger Dave Brat significantly complicated prospects for passing overhaul legislation this year.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., one of the GOP’s most dogged and optimistic advocates for moving on the issue in the 113th Congress, suddenly said he had no idea how to go forward, with members spooked and the leadership structure suddenly in flux.
“This clearly doesn’t help our cause,” he told reporters. “It throws a wrench in it.”
“How long do you hold out hope for?” he asked. “I think it’s gonna run out.”
And with Cantor on his way out as majority leader, members on both sides of the aisle are waiting to see what the new leadership team looks like.
As of late Wednesday, two of the potential candidates were foes of the type of legislative immigration fix favored by most establishment Republicans: Rules Chairman Pete Sessions and Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, both of Texas.
At the same time, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California was readying his own bid for the job, and he would be more amenable to putting immigration legislation on the House calendar — with the backing of colleagues, of course.
Who gets the No. 2 spot in the House GOP power structure is an increasing worry for Democrats, according to one House Democratic aide.
“There is concern about the future of the Republican leadership in general,” the aide said in an email. “The far-right wing of the conference may argue that in the wake of Cantor’s defeat they should be better represented in leadership, and for a host of reasons I think that makes Democrats wary.”
But that theory corresponds with the perception that Cantor lost the race largely because of his role in supporting some aspects of an immigration overhaul.
It's a perception many politicians and political operatives contend isn't entirely accurate.
“I don’t think this is about immigration alone,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York told CQ Roll Call. “I think that’s a cop-out. This was about a tea party that doesn’t believe that the Republican Party is extreme enough. Immigration is maybe Exhibit A, but there’s B, C, D and E.”
Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California said in a separate interview with CQ Roll Call that Cantor’s defeat left the immigration landscape almost entirely unchanged.
“The facts on the ground remain the same,” he said. “We have the votes in the House for a bipartisan fix and the American people overwhelmingly support it. … The only question left is, when will Republican step up and deal with it?”
The role that immigration played in Cantor’s defeat — and what its fate might be on Capitol Hill — was also pondered by some of the nation’s premier Republican pollsters on Wednesday, as they unveiled the fruits of their collaborative effort to pinpoint public opinion on immigration from the perspective of Latinos and voters across-the-board.
Of the poll’s many findings, one showed that the majority of self-identified conservative voters supported the basic tenets of an immigration overhaul, including a path to legal status for undocumented individuals.
“Our data does suggest that Republican candidates who present the immigration reform issue properly probably have little to fear in Republican primaries,” said Jon Lerner of Basswood Research.
Lerner and others pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who enjoyed a decisive victory in his own Tuesday night primary after strongly supporting the Senate’s immigration bill.
In fact, one of the criticisms of Cantor was that he struggled to articulate his position on immigration. In 2013, with the midterm elections many months away, Cantor said he supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents. A year later, he blocked consideration of an amendment to the fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants a chance to become citizens in exchange for serving in the military.
Some people said Cantor became so fearful of his primary challenge by Brat that he began to tack farther to the right, using politically charged rhetoric such as “amnesty” and “illegal aliens” in campaign literature to underscore his opposition to such things.
It prompted America’s Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry to say in a statement Tuesday night that “Cantor was no friend of immigration reform," implying perhaps that a Cantor-free House doesn't really mean anything at all.
At the same time, the polling results rolled out on Wednesday showcased the extent to which the onus to act on immigration remains relevant in the halls of Congress, with or without Eric Cantor: They paint a stark reality that Republicans need to rewrite the nation’s immigration system to survive as a party, if not in the midterms then at least in 2016 and beyond.
Rob Jesmer, a veteran GOP operative who moderated the presentation of the data on Wednesday morning, said Republicans must do something on the issue sooner than later.
“In all candor, we’re going to have a good election,” Jesmer said of November’s political landscape. “There’s not a gun to their heads right now … [But] we’re going to wake up four months from now and be in the presidential cycle and be in a world of hurt.”
Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.
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