One would have to be pretty far gone in spin to deny the obvious about yesterday’s defeat of House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary: Republican voters were rejecting the idea of “comprehensive immigration reform.” To be sure, it was not the only reason he was defeated. A sizable number of voters thought he had grown inattentive to the district. David Brat, who beat Cantor, assailed him for being too tight with Wall Street and big business on a range of corporate-welfare issues. A lot of tea partiers are unhappy with a Republican hierarchy that they see as insufficiently willing to fight for conservative principles. Immigration, though, was indisputably the top policy issue in the race, and it was a symbol of everything else that motivated Brat’s candidacy.
A lot of Republicans, disproportionately those in Washington, D.C., harbor the fantasy that the party could make great gains among Hispanic voters if it would only offer legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, create large guest-worker programs, and refrain from insisting that enforcement of the existing laws be shown to work before taking these steps. Cantor refused to shut the door on this approach, so primary voters shut the door on him.
They did so even though Cantor has, in many other respects, an exemplary conservative record. He helped rally conservatives against Obamacare in 2009 and 2010, stood in the way of a tax-raising budget deal in 2011, assailed the administration’s morally and strategically misguided distancing of America from Israel over the last five years, and promoted school choice as a distinctively conservative anti-poverty strategy continuously. If he had been in tune with grassroots sentiment on immigration, he would be on track to someday promote these causes as speaker of the House. But since he has been rejected by a majority of Republicans in his home district, his duty now is to endorse Brat and step down as majority leader (as he reportedly will).
Other Republicans should have the wit to see that even if “comprehensive immigration reform” were a good idea — and in truth it is in neither the country’s nor the party’s interest — the party’s voters would not stand for it. Republicans should also understand that rank-and-file conservatives, like the public at large, consider the party too unconcerned about the fate of Americans who do not regularly sit in boardrooms.