DENVER — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s startling primary loss this week to a tea party-backed opponent illustrates how the GOP finds itself paralyzed by immigration reform. The policy most party leaders agree is best for the Republican Party’s future is risky for most House Republicans seeking re-election in the fall.
Almost all represent districts that are home to few minorities and they are in greater danger of losing to a primary challenger than to a Democrat in the general election. That leaves little incentive for the GOP-controlled House to even touch an immigration overhaul that would to grant citizenship to many of the 11 million people living in the country illegally.
Economics professor David Brat hammered Cantor, R-Va., for purportedly backing “amnesty” for people in the U.S. illegally during his primary challenge. He called his unexpected victory a wake-up call that “immigration reform is DOA.”
After Cantor’s defeat, Republicans are left in a quandary before the 2016 election — what to do about an issue that’s often a winner in primaries but could cripple the party in a White House race before a more diverse electorate.
“Pain can be a good teaching tool sometimes,” said Mario H. Lopez, a Republican and executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Fund. “It may take another White House beat-down before some folks understand what kind of cliff they’re walking over.”
Many people involved in the immigration debate have similar predictions about what will happen next: The House takes no action on an immigration overhaul, President Barack Obama makes good on his promise to ease deportations by executive action later this summer, and that inflames the GOP even more, dooming any bill in 2015.
When the next presidential race gets underway, a broad field of the GOP’s presidential candidates will be competing for the support of primary voters who are far more opposed to an immigration overhaul than most Americans.