Opinion: Eric Cantor’s a lame duck, immigration reform is crippled

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivers his concession speech in Richmond on Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) delivers his concession speech in Richmond on Tuesday.

(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

All politics is local, according to erstwhile House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), and when it comes to winning elections, that’s absolutely true. But sometimes the results from one local election can reverberate across the country, affecting campaigns -- and policies -- many miles away.

That could be the case with the stunning upset that a college economics professor scored over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary in Virginia on Tuesday. David Brat, who was backed by some conservatives and tea party Republicans, made immigration reform his main issue. To be more precise, he hammered Cantor repeatedly for supporting “amnesty” for immigrants already in the country illegally, an accusation Cantor denied.

It’s conceivable that Cantor’s membership in the House GOP leadership did him in. Brat certainly tried to paint Cantor as out of touch with his district, a common complaint about veteran lawmakers. But the most likely lesson other Republicans will take from Cantor’s defeat is that immigration reform is a no-win proposition.

In other words, the odds of Congress fixing the country’s broken immigration laws just went from slim to none. The only question now is how long the chill cast by Cantor’s loss will endure.

There’s no small amount of irony in Cantor, who was once the tea party’s go-to guy in the House leadership, being defeated by that faction’s new fling. But it’s not a huge surprise either. The tea party is singularly fickle and anti-establishment. As vigorously as he pushed to deregulate industry and shrink government, Cantor’s role as majority leader made him an inescapably part of a Washington establishment that couldn’t give the tea party (or anybody else) what they really wanted.


According to the Washington Post, Cantor’s internal polling showed him leading challenger David Brat by 34 percentage points in late May with only 11% of the voters undecided. But that lead, if it ever truly existed, evaporated Tuesday, as Brat beat Cantor by a double-digit margin.

Cantor was hardly the tip of the GOP spear on immigration reform, unlike Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Rather than trying to move the comprehensive bill Rubio helped usher through the Senate, Cantor wanted to take incremental steps through a series of narrow bills on border security, temporary work visas and similarly discrete issues.

You could argue that he was just trying to find a way to accommodate the various factions in his own caucus, some of which have pressed for a comprehensive bill, others of which are interested only in building a bigger, longer fence along the Mexican border. To his critics, though, the mere fact that Cantor was willing to consider reforms beyond border security was damning enough.

The divisions in the House GOP mirror the split between some national party leaders and many of their members. The former look at the growing population of Latino voters and worry they’ll never win another presidency as long as they’re seen as the party blocking immigration reform. The latter seethe about the costs imposed by those in the country illegally and don’t understand why even more people aren’t being deported.

Count on House Republicans to heed the opponents of immigration reform now.

Follow Healey’s intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey