The defeat on Tuesday of Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-most powerful lawmaker in the House of Representatives, by a little-known Tea Party candidate in Virginia’s GOP primary should be viewed in isolation, and not as a harbinger of future voter actions, political experts said Wednesday.
That because, experts in both Democratic and Republican camps say, Virginia’s politics and Cantor’s congressional district specifically are vastly different from the rest of the nation.
Latinos are just 8 percent of Virginia’s population, dramatically less than the 17 percent they make up of the national population. Cantor’s district is 80 percent white and only 2 percent Hispanic.
And what may gain traction in the state, and in Cantor’s largely conservative district, would have a tougher time of gaining support on a national level, experts say.
“We should not let what happened in Virginia, where only 65,000 people voted, in a very conservative district, determine the fate of the immigration issue or set the state of the mood of the country,” said Ben Monterroso, Executive Director, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund. “Virginia is not a reflection of the nation.”
Cantor lost to David Brat and then announced he would step down at the end of July. His congressional district stretches from Culpeper to the Richmond area.
After Cantor’s unexpected loss, theories abounded about its larger political significance. Many said that Cantor’s perceived weakness by voters on immigration enforcement – his opponent Brat had cast him as an amnesty supporter – showed how moderate views on the divisive issue could doom a candidate.
“There are many sweeping conclusions based on a very small number of people in a small corner of Virginia,” said Tom Densen, director of Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, which conducted a survey in Cantor’s district of more than 400 voters. The survey showed that more than 70 percent of voters favor comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
“A lot of Republicans really do want to get something done about immigration. We found that even Republicans in Cantor’s district really want to see something happen with immigration reform.”
Cantor’s dismal performance among voters was contrasted with that of fellow Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who on Tuesday night defeated six Tea Party opponents and avoided a runoff by getting more than 50 percent of the vote.
Many experts noted that while some conservatives loathe Graham for his support of immigration reform and other issues, none of his challengers could gain traction or match Graham's fundraising.
Cantor, they say, simply didn’t fight hard enough in a race he was sure he’d win. His campaigns internal polls had showed him comfortably beating Brat, an economics professor who forced immigration as the central issue in the campaign.
Cantor, who’d once held a more moderate view on reforming immigration, shifted to a hard line after Brat’s attacks depicting him as soft and willing to reward law breakers by giving them amnesty.
With votes counted in 99 percent of the precincts, 64,418 votes were cast, roughly a 37 percent increase over two years ago. Despite that, Cantor polled fewer votes than he did in 2012 — 28,631 this time, compared with 37,369 then.
Graham, whose constituency tends to be even more conservative, in many ways, than Cantor’s, handed him a hefty victory even though the senator not only backed the idea of immigration reform that would include enforcement as well as an opportunity for undocumented immigrants to legalize, but he also was directly involved in a Senate bill on the issue that passed last year.
“Lindsey Graham was able to talk about what the Senate bill actually does,” said Jon McHenry of the Republican pollster Northstar Opinion Research. “He took it out of the context of just amnesty.”
“People who run successfully in support of immigration reform say it’s not amnesty, its securing our border, and they talk about what do we do with the undocumented immigrants who live in our country.”
Last month, Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina beat a conservative challenge in the GOP primary that also sought to portray her as an amnesty-loving weakling on immigration.
“Renee Elmer had a tough primary, her race was all about immigration,” McHenry said. “And she successfully fought on that issue, she spoke about what she was for instead of letting it be defined for her.”
Advocates for Latino voters say that many in this voting bloc hold the GOP responsible for inaction on immigration reform. Hard line views by Republicans during the 2012 GOP presidential primaries alienated many Latino voters, experts say, and were believed to have led to the defeat of GOP candidate Mitt Romney by President Barack Obama. More than 70 percent of Latino and Asian-American voters cast their ballots for Obama.
Gebe Martinez, of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, said that Latinos and Asian-Americans are watching how political candidates and parties address issues that involve them.
Conservative groups that favor strict immigration policies are celebrating Cantor’s defeat, and the role that the issue had in the election.
"The wage-earning voters of Rep. Cantor's district apparently felt abandoned by his immigration positions,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, “that virtually ignored their anxiety about stagnant wages and high unemployment and that projected primary concern for unlawful foreign visitors and employers seeking more foreign workers.”
Beck sees Cantor’s defeat as a cautionary tale for other politicians who embrace moderate and liberal immigration policies.
“Prof. Brat's insistence that immigration policies should focus on the needs of American workers and taxpayers provided a sharp contrast to the corporate-driven vision of the top echelon of the Republican Party that Rep. Cantor exemplified.”
But others say the cautionary tale is that Republicans need to pass an immigration reform bill.
“Mr. Cantor was never in favor of immigration,” Monterroso of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund said. “He would say one thing to some of us in the [Latino] community and do something else.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente