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Immigration Reform Died With Eric Cantor's Shocking Loss to a Tea Party Challenger

The GOP is damned if they do, damned if they don't.

Getty Images/Mark Wilson

If immigration reform had any hope in the House before Tuesday, it certainly doesn’t have any now after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to tea party challenger Dave Brat. The upset victory sent shockwaves through the political world, with no one predicting the outcome. In fact, the Washington Post even wrote on Tuesday, “The question in this race is how large Cantor’s margin of victory will be.”

The answer: Negative.

Immigration reform likely played a significant role in Cantor's defeat. Brat repeatedly attacked Cantor for allegedly supporting allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States—so called amnesty. “It’s nothing personal against Eric,” Brat told PBS NewsHour on Monday. “It’s just I don’t see what he’s doing on immigration.” Cantor vociferously denied the charges. His campaign even passed out flyers emphasizing that the majority leader opposed amnesty.

It didn’t work. Brat, who is an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, continued to woo conservative leaders and tea party constituents in Virginia’s 7th district, but still seemed unlikely to pull out a victory. In 2012, Cantor won his primary with 80 percent of the vote. He can’t blame the loss on turnout either: Turnout was greater on Tuesday than it was two years ago. Cantor even outspent Brat $993,000 to $76,000 in the final seven weeks of the campaign. It wasn’t enough.

According to Roll Call's Emily Cahn, Cantor is the first majority leader to lose his primary since 1899. It's hard to understand how this happened. On Friday, a Cantor internal poll showed him up by 34 points on Brat. The margin of error on that poll was just 4.5 points. A Daily Caller poll found the race much closer with Cantor up 52-41, still outside the 9-point margin of error. Even so, it's hard to understand how Cantor's campaign missed this so badly. Cantor's staff reportedly wasn't concerned with the primary on Tuesday. They expected a relatively easy victory. Everyone—journalists included—are shocked by the result.

The immediate policy implications of this are clear: Immigration reform is completely dead. It was a very longshot before Tuesday night. Now, it’s 100 percent over. Cantor’s loss shows how toxic the subject is for any incumbent Republican. It doesn’t bode well for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions as well.

But it also doesn’t bode well for the party as a whole. Immigration reform is going to continue being a national issue. Republicans will still have to take a stance on it—and the only stance they can take is one that alienates Hispanics. On Twitter, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann summed up the GOP’s current position:

Yes they are.

This post has been updated.