WASHINGTON — The most important effect of Majority Leader Eric Cantor's shocking primary loss may come in the minds of a generation of Republicans who learn a single lesson: Tiptoe toward compromise on immigration at the risk of your career.
Cantor was hardly a champion of open borders, but he had been among many establishment Republicans who flirted with a compromise that would allow millions of undocumented people to remain in the United States legally — specifically immigrants brought into the U.S at young age. Cantor had pushed for a Republican version of the DREAM Act this year. That became the core of the campaign against him — and the emblem of a new turn in Republican politics.
"[Immigration has] been off the table for a while but now it's really never going back on the table," said a lawmaker close to the House Republican leadership Tuesday night. "No one who wants to be in leadership eventually will ever, ever go for it and likely raise holy hell if it comes up."
Tea party challenger David Brat campaigned against Cantor on the immigration issue, calling the majority leader "the number one Republican supporter of amnesty." Brat's core support came from conservative media figures and outlets that care most deeply about the immigration issue: Breitbart, radio host Laura Ingraham, and writer Mickey Kaus.
"Clearly that's one of the issues that he lost his race on, I think there's frustration over a lot of issues, and amnesty should be clearly off the table," Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp told BuzzFeed.
"Republicans don't trust the president to enforce the laws, and we had Eric suggesting he could work with him on certain immigration issues," Huelskamp said. "But I think it's clear now that anybody who wants to keep their job in the Republican party won't pass amnesty."
But Tuesday's results don't necessarily mean a coming purge of supporters of a compromise. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — a longtime, vocal proponent of major legislative action on immigration — won his primary Tuesday night, despite being once considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress. But Graham had been dragged, in part by this issue, into a years-long, multimillion dollar ground war to defend his seat — any senator's nightmare, and something others will likely strive to avoid.
But immigration activists viewed Cantor as two-faced on the issue, while blocking reform in the House. Graham on the other hand, had aggressively made his case on immigration reform to voters.