On Tuesday night, an underfunded, Tea Party-backed candidate unseated incumbent House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) during a primary race in Virginia’s 7th district. Cantor outspent David Brat (R) 20 to 1, but the Associated Press called the race for Brat. Cantor’s (admittedly tenuous) support for immigration reform was a major issue in the race, but his loss was about more than a single issue.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson weighed in Tuesday night saying that Cantor’s stance on immigration reform was not responsible for his loss. “The media will play up Cantor’s loss by claiming it was about immigration,” Erickson said. “They will be wrong, but it will be useful for the rest of us.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) agreed, “some will say immigration reform is dead. They [are] wrong.”
Supporting immigration reform has yet to define other primary races involving incumbents. On Tuesday night, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), who voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill last year, defeated several challengers. White House official Dan Pfeiffer said on Twitter, “Cantor’s problem wasn’t his position on immigration reform, it was his lack of a position. Graham wrote and passed a bill and is winning big.” Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), who also supported immigration reform, won her primary in May against a Republican who ran on a platform that mainly attacked her immigration reform support. What’s more, the majority of candidates who signed an anti-amnesty pledge lost their primaries. Primary candidates who signed the pledge must promise that they would oppose legislation that would grant any form of work authorization to undocumented immigrants and to oppose legislation that increases the overall number of immigrants and guest workers.
Frank Sharry, Executive Director at the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice explained Tuesday night, “Too bad Rep. Cantor didn’t steal a page from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who leaned into the issue, was unapologetic about his principled stand and won his primary handily. Elections are referendums on an incumbent’s leadership ability. Graham won big. Cantor lost big.”
In the past, Cantor came out in support for legalization of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, but never followed through with legislation. He also recently stated that he supported allowing some undocumented immigrants to enlist in the military “in principle,” but voted against allowing them to serve.
According to his “Issues” campaign page, Brat takes an anti-immigration, enforcement-only approach and dismisses “any proposal that grants amnesty and undermines the fundamental rule of law.” As the latest Public Religion Research Institute poll out Tuesday showed, Brat’s opposition to immigration reform is actually aligned with Tea Party interests, not with a majority of mainstream Republicans who support a pathway to citizenship. His immigration positions are often supported by immigration-restrictionist groups and more extreme elements of the Republican Party. In May, Brat signed the anti-amnesty pledge. And on Sunday, Brat accused Cantor for supporting immigration policies that he alleged was partially responsible for the current unaccompanied minors crisis at the southern border. Many children who have fled Central America have cited violence as the pull factor into the United States, not immigration reform.
There hasn’t been much support that immigration reform determined the outcome of the primary race between Cantor and Brat. What’s more likely was party politics unseated Cantor. The Huffington Post noted that “Cantor was often the necessary link that bridged leadership and rank-and-file tea party members. ‘He’s the one guy everyone relies on to get things done for them,’ said one Cantor ally. Each time he twisted tea party arms, though, it cost him politically, raising suspicions among grassroots activists that Cantor was an impure conservative.” That sentiment was shared by the conservative-leaning Red State, which reported that Cantor “repeatedly antagonized conservatives.” And according to the Washington Post, Cantor was booed “at a May meeting of Republican activists in the district.”