House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's decision to veer right on immigration reform may have contributed to his stunning defeat this week, a leading Republican pollster said Friday.
The defeated Virginia congressman, faced with his GOP challenger's attack that he was a proponent of "amnesty," should have more fully explained his support for the idea of granting legal status to individuals who came to the U.S. illegally as children, pollster Whit Ayres told reporters.
"Eric Cantor never said he supported comprehensive immigration reform. What he supported was the DREAM Act, which is one small component of a comprehensive package," Ayres said, adding that the latter plan polled "off the charts."
"Clearly he was caught in a position where people weren't sure what he supported. He would have been far better off explaining what he supported and the reasons why he supported it because as we've seen, the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with a reasonable and fair and equitable plan."
Ayres is squarely in the camp of Republican strategists who argue that the party needs to support at least a modest immigration reform plan or risk dooming its chances in national elections for the foreseeable future. Ayres pointed to new polling from him and others that has found Americans strongly support immigration reform proposals like the one that passed the Senate last year.
A survey of national voters conducted in mid-May found that the overwhelming majority opposed the idea of "amnesty," or effectively granting citizenship or legal status to illegal immigrants without any form of penalty. But 54% of those surveyed said they would characterize the immigration reform plan after it had been explained to them as "fair and equitable," compared to 23% who said it provided amnesty. The numbers were largely the same when broken down by party.
"There is an intense minority, about 20, 25% of the Republican Party that is adamantly opposed to any form of immigration reform beyond strengthening the border," Ayres said. "They are very loud and very intense. But they do not reflect majority opinion in the country."
He pointed to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a lead author of the Senate's comprehensive bill who easily won his primary race this week, as an example of how Republicans can succeed by standing for immigration reform.
A companion survey of Hispanic voters found that approximately one in four did not identify with either major party, and Ayres argued that supporting immigration reform will open a door for Republicans to win their support.
"Doing so would substantially change the calculus in a great many swing states and presidential elections," he said. "Moreover it opens the door to Republican support among a number of swing voters who don't want to join a party that seems unwelcoming of immigrants."
The surveys -- one of a national sample of voters and a second of Hispanic voters -- were conducted on behalf of FWD.us, the group co-founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg that is pushing Congress to pass immigration reform. Critics of the survey said the description of the Senate's immigration plan left out possible negative consequences of the plan.
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