According to an emerging Beltway meme, Eric Cantor’s deficiencies in retail politics and a general sense of anti-incumbency drove Dave Brat’s primary victory on Tuesday; immigration had little, or nothing, to do with it. This meme is especially popular among Beltway allies of the White House immigration agenda.
In many ways, this is a problematic assertion. Obviously, support for the White House immigration agenda is not a guarantee of electoral defeat for Republicans (see Graham, Lindsey). But distrust about Congress ramming through a dysfunctional immigration “reform” package larded with soon-to-be broken promises and special-interest giveaways can certainly be a key factor in electoral contests, including Cantor’s. The idea that Cantor’s defeat was simply due to the fact that he had “lost touch” with his constituents misses some of the key facts of the race. Brat’s attacks on Cantor for supporting “amnesty” were at the heart of his media message and his broader campaign.
Arguing that Cantor’s defeat had nothing to do with immigration politics is rather like arguing that Joe Lieberman’s loss to Ned Lamont in the 2006 Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary had nothing to do with foreign policy. Lamont devoted considerable energy to attacking Lieberman on Iraq. When Lamont won, the media did not say that Lieberman had lost because he didn’t attend enough New Canaan bake-sales but because the primary voters disagreed with him on certain key issues, especially foreign affairs. As the Washington Post wrote on the day after the vote, Lieberman lost “in a campaign that became a referendum on the incumbent’s support for the Iraq war.” Other hawkish Democrats may have survived primaries, but that did not mean that Lieberman’s loss had nothing to do with Iraq. Iraq wasn’t the only issue, but it was a key issue.
Likewise, for Brat’s race, immigration was not the only issue, but it was an important one. Without grassroots anxiety that House Republican leadership would try to realize the White House immigration agenda, Brat would very likely have struggled to gain the kind of media attention and on-the-ground enthusiasm that was crucial for his win. In 2012, Floyd Bayne, a self-identified “Tea Party” challenger, attacked Cantor as an out-of-touch elitist. Bayne barely got 20 percent of the vote. Immigration likely accounts for a substantial portion of the 35 points between Bayne’s 20 percent and the 55 percent of the vote Brat garnered. Nor is it entirely clear that Cantor totally ignored local retail politicking in the lead-up to the primary. Consider this Hill story from a few days before the primary, which portrays Cantor as mobbed at a local fair while Brat attracted little attention.
However, there is an element of truth to the analysis of Sean Trende, Ron Fournier, and others that a disconnect between the broader public and the governing elite fueled Cantor’s loss. Immigration served as a catalyzing issue in the Brat-Cantor race in part because immigration intersects with a host of broader public concerns. Over the past decade, and especially since 2008, numerous anxieties about the institutional integrity of the United States have confronted the American public. A troubled labor market, stagnating wages, sluggish economic growth, and escalating costs (especially health-care-related ones) feed these anxieties. Meanwhile, many Americans fear the escalation of social and economic divisions in the contemporary U.S. Connected to this concern about the fracturing of American society is a sense of disillusionment with many in the governing elite. The housing bubble, the financial crisis, the crippled recovery, numerous administrative scandals (such as the IRS abuses), and various foreign-policy debacles (among other issues) have caused many Americans to doubt the integrity and competence of the ruling elite.
Current debates about immigration “reform” touch upon all of these concerns. Much of the resistance to illegal immigration and the White House immigration agenda has little to do with hostility to illegal immigrants themselves and very much to do with an anxiety about the way bad-faith open borders may undermine some of the central aspirational tenets of the United States, including civic equality, opportunity, and the republican rule of law. The Senate immigration bill is anti-opportunity, anti-worker, and, in many respects, anti-immigrant. It would likely increase economic divisions in American society. Its guest-worker programs pervert the free market on behalf of the wealthy and powerful, and its immediate legalization with (hazy) promises of (ineffective) enforcement provide further incentive for illegal immigration. In part because the Obama administration is not enforcing immigration law now, many Americans doubt that it, and later potential administrations, will enforce immigration law in the future. That attitude of distrust permeates contemporary debates and is one of the major obstacles to forward-looking immigration reform (which is distinct from the legislative policies currently paraded around as “comprehensive immigration reform”). The fact that some House Republicans continue to be sympathetic to sweeping “comprehensive immigration reform” in essential accord with the Senate bill only increases that distrust.
In interpreting the significance of Brat’s victory, we do not face a choice between saying that either grass-roots anti-establishmentarianism or anti-“amnesty” fervor led to his win. Both forces contributed to his victory because they are not entirely separate. Brat’s campaign did not monomaniacally fixate on opposition to the White House immigration agenda but instead wove that opposition into a broader critique of some of the tendencies of the current Beltway elite. Running solely on opposition to the White House immigration agenda is likely a political dead-end, but there is much more to be said for situating skepticism about this agenda in a broader narrative of civic and economic renewal. Those looking to reinvigorate the GOP and to respond to some of the central challenges of our present moment might do well to steer clear of a set of immigration policies that encourage illegal immigration, increase the number of American residents who do not have full economic and political autonomy (such as guest-workers and illegal immigrants), harm the economic prospects of both native-born and immigrant workers, limit opportunity, and undermine the rule of law.
— Fred Bauer blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.