The fate of amnesty legislation this year may depend on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) margin of victory Tuesday in a primary campaign that has surprisingly emerged as a high-profile immigration battle.
While a trio of House Republicans – Reps. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) – are canvassing the GOP conference on whether there is appetite to tackle immigration before the August recess, Cantor has had to fend off a long-shot, underfunded economics professor who rose in the polls by relentlessly attacking Cantor on the issue.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Randolph-Macon economics professor Rep. David Brat (R-VA) launched yet another immigration broadside on Cantor, declaring, “a vote for Eric Cantor on June 10th is a vote for open borders and lower wages” and that “Cantor’s absolute determination to pass amnesty knows no bounds.”
Cantor’s political hands, meanwhile, sought to frame the opposition as an inside-the-beltway battle between himself and conservative media outlets like Breitbart that have closely watched the race.
“The glitterati doesn’t want to talk about… [economic] issues because it doesn’t view them as sexy,” Ray Allen, Cantor’s top political consultant, told National Journal.
Tough words from someone who works for Cantor, who is well-known for his attendance at the Davos Economic Forum, Aspen Ideas Festival, and similar gatherings of the world’s political and business elite.
Barring a catastrophic upset, Cantor will survive his primary challenge from Brat. But having won the 2012 primary election 80-20 and withhis campaign firing on all cylinders, Cantor’s margin of victory is likely to reverberate in Washington.
“That old cliché about ‘run hard or run unopposed’ seems to apply here,” said Kyle Kondick, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “It would be an absolute shock if Cantor lost, and there’s no reason to expect that he will. I’m more interested in the margin — whether he gets over 60% or not.”
And a Cantor victory will come at a cost. The Virginia Republican has been forced to run as an anti-amnesty warrior, shedding his “make life work” rebranding from 2013 to use rhetoric he hadn’t been engaging in for some time. Even as his constituents were receiving literature that Cantor was stopping the “Obama-Reid amnesty plan,” Cantor revealed in a local television interview he’s still interested in working out a compromise on the issue with President Obama.
“But I have told the President there are some things that we can work on together,” Cantor said in a Friday interview with a local television station. “We can work on the border security bill together. We can work on things like the kids.”
“The kids” refers to Cantor’s support for the principles of the “DREAM Act,” which would grant amnesty to illegal aliens who came to the U.S. as minors. Cantor has worked to craft a GOP version of the bill, and has argued the principle behind the legislation, not to punish children for their parents acts, is “one of the nation’s great founding principles” and even “biblical.”
Support for the measure comes at an inconvenient time, with tens of thousands of children streaming across the southern border, creating a humanitarian crisis and loss of operational control along the border.
Brat has cited Cantor’s rhetoric on amnesty as contributing to the flood across the border.
“Despite pouring millions of dollars into his dishonest corporate-funded-and-created ads, Cantor has admitted his intention to pass a DREAM Act amnesty bill with President Obama’s help,” Brat said. “Don’t let Eric Cantor’s corporate donors buy this election and take away opportunities from Virginia’s struggling families, workers, single mothers, aspiring students, and people of all backgrounds living here today.”
Furthermore, Cantor backed the House GOP’s leadership principles in February, which would grant “legal status,” but not citizenship, to millions of illegal aliens.
After the House GOP leadership released its “immigration principles,” conservatives revolted. And after Sens. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) blasted the “principles” as nothing more than amnesty, House and Senate leaders said they would not proceed on immigration legislation if they could not trust Obama to enforce the laws. Meanwhile, Obama, who has indicated he would unilaterally ease deportations if Congress does not pass an immigration bill by August, recently instructed Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to delay the administration’s deportation review to give Congress a chance to pass amnesty legislation.
But there are signs that Republicans may be readying to claim Obama has established that “trust.”
Republicans and Democrats have indicated that “a narrow window for an immigration bill could open early in the summer — after most of the midterm Republican primaries — if Congress and President Obama build cooperative good will on smaller bills in the coming weeks.”
The New York Times noted that bills dealing with federal job training programs or future trade deals could provide Obama opportunities to work with Republicans to find “common ground.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a top amnesty and increased legal immigration critic, has argued the problem “is not limited to one of trust.”
“Even if the President could be trusted, the Senate Democrat plan he embraces would deliver a hammer blow to working Americans,” he said. “We must transition struggling Americans from welfare and joblessness to work and rising wages.”
He has said that “the only plan the President and Senate Democrats appear interested in supporting would hollow out a shrinking American middle class,” and “it is time to redefine ‘immigration reform’ to serve the legitimate interests of working Americans.”
Cantor’s campaign argues that he is focused on non-“sexy” economic issues. Immigration, though, is an economic issue.
The Congressional Budget Office determined the Senate’s amnesty bill would lower the wages of American workers. U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Peter Kirsanow has argued in a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus that amnesty would hurt low-skilled black workers. While Cantor supports an increase in the number of high-tech visas that are awarded to guest workers, many studies have determined that there is not a shortage of high-tech American workers.
And Cantor has refused to debate Brat, an economics professor. Presumably, the debate would be sufficiently “sexy,” since economics is Brat’s area of expertise.