Something worse came after the stunning defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th District: the temporary death of immigration reform. While Cantor can be described as many things such as an obstructionist and calculating figure, he was one of the most vocal supporters for immigration reform, and in particular, for Dreamers. Not only did immigration supporters and the left lose an unlikely ally, but they also lost the dreams and hopes of passing some sort of immigration bill this session, or even this year.
His defeat catapulted his opponent David Brat, a new Tea Party star, and emblazoned the far right. After losing a string of elections, many thought of the far right to be dead. This election has revived them in the grassroots level, and in the extreme right wing part of the House Republican caucus. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham declared on TV that Eric Cantor lost because he was a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and for supporting “amnesty” (according to her, amnesty turned out to be Cantor’s kryptonite). If that were the case, then Republican Senator Lindsey Graham would have lost his Senate primary in South Carolina for being one of the “Gang of Eight,” who crafted the Senate immigration reform bill last year. Instead, he won the election with over 50% of the vote in a deeply red state, the same night Cantor lost.
Cantor did not lose because he supported immigration reform. Republicans strategists have come out stating that he lost because of other reasons, such as a strong perceived notion by many of his constituents that he was ignoring his district in pursuit of more political power in the GOP leadership, and worse of all, trying of have it both ways when it came to immigration. One day, he was sending campaign mail to his constituents on how no one in Congress has fought more against President Obama’s plan to give amnesty to “illegal aliens,” and then the next, bragging about how he is working with Obama to provide legal status to young undocumented immigrants. His constituently fortunately did not fall for the same old political trick. It also did not help him that the open primary structure allowed Democrats to vote in the Republican race. Yet, the political world ignored this and political survival mode took over the narrative.
Republican politicians up for re-election fear that they will become the next Cantor. Moving forward, their voting and campaigning style will be modified accordingly. However, they could be dead wrong if the new strategy backfires. At the end, it does not matter, as perception and optics usually trump data and facts in the world of politics.
The last couple of months seemed to be in favor of immigration reformers. At last, House Republicans were warming up to the idea of passing some sort of immigration reform albeit in small bills. Speaker Boehner even spoke of having something on the floor before the session ended in August. So much so, that President Obama, in good will, decided to hold off a Department of Homeland Security immigration review, and asked the Department of Defense to delay their military Dreamer Program.
Then Cantor lost.
Consequently, many House Republicans have decided it is not worth the risk of voting on an issue that could potentially get them booted come midterm elections. To further complicate matters, his loss also meant a new power vacuum in the GOP leadership. Cantor was expected to take the gavel once Speaker Boehner stepped down. His loss changes everything. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy quickly mobilized his supporters and was elected as the next Majority Leader in the house.
Yet, the score is not settled. Many House Republicans are furious that a more conservative figure such as Rep. Raul Labrador, who also ran for the position, did not win. Some believe the Republican leadership is too liberal and does not have enough members from Red states. After all, Kevin McCarthy is more of a moderate than a Texas-style conservative who hails from the “very liberal” state of California. While McCarthy is the Majority leader right now, Republicans will vote him and all of the GOP leadership on once again in November. Thus, McCarthy and others in the leadership will not be focusing this year in passing big controversial bills and instead, will be focusing on protecting themselves.
Where does this put immigration reform? To be exact, in a legislative coma. Don’t get me wrong, immigration reform will pass; maybe not today, or tomorrow, or even next month. This should not discourage immigration supporters or activists, but embolden them to continue on the fight for fair, sound immigration policies. Even conservative power players such Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, publicly spoke out in favor of immigration reform last week. Political realities may have won today, but that will not always be the case. Perhaps Republicans need to lose a couple more races to realize that immigration reform is not their kryptonite, but their solution to many of their party’s problems.
Carlos Vera is a Staff Writer at Latino Giant. He is passionate about the intersection between policy, advocacy and community development as it pertains to Latinos in United States. He is a Senior at American University in Washington D.C., where he is focusing his studies on the politics and policy inner workings of immigration and education. Currently, he is Co-Directing a peer mentorship program for multicultural students as a NUFP Fellow at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Previously, he has held internships at the U.S. House of Representatives, the European Parliament in Brussels, and volunteer roles in local, state and national campaigns.