If House Majority Leader Eric Cantor loses his primary Tuesday, it will signal the power of the immigration issue and the depth of Republican voters’ opposition to amnesty.
The much more likely scenario is that Cantor wins easily but his primary opponent, Dave Brat — an economist running especially hard against amnesty — receives perhaps a third of the vote. What signal does that send?
It’s a familiar story. Just this year, North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers beat back a primary challenge from a Republican running to her right on immigration. In California, former Minuteman Tim Donnelly led fellow Republican Neel Kashkari in the polls for months before losing to him on Election Day.
Donnelly’s defeat makes one wonder whether immigration hardliner Tom Tancredo can maintain his tenuous lead in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Colorado.
Lindsey Graham — affectionately called “Grahamnesty” by his conservative detractors — is set to clobber his primary opponents in the South Carolina Senate race. (Which has become less of a “race” than a “crawl.”)
John McCain, who partnered with Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush on amnesty, beat J.D. Hayworth in 2010. Hayworth, a former congressman, had written a book highlighting his opposition to illegal immigration.
Come to think of it, McCain won the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, as Bush had done twice before.
To find a big-name Republican incumbent who lost his party’s nomination because of immigration, you have to go back to Utah Rep. Chris Cannon’s defeat at the hands of Jason Chaffetz in 2008.
So maybe immigration isn’t such a big deal inside the Republican Party after all? It’s an easy conclusion to reach, but it’s also wrong.
Consider John McCain. In both his presidential campaign and his 2010 Senate re-election race, he ran away from his support for giving legal status to illegal immigrants. The Washington Post called him the Republican weather vane on immigration.
The year McCain ran against Barack Obama (sort of), he pledged to oppose his own immigration bill. He laid it on even thicker when running for re-election, portraying himself as a tough border security hawk and vowing to “Complete the danged fence.” Three years earlier, Vanity Fair quoted him saying more grudgingly, “I’ll build the goddamned fence if they want it.”
Immigration never sank McCain, but it was a major liability. Let’s not forget that McCain’s presidential campaign nearly went broke in 2007, tanking at the same time as his immigration bill. The New York Times mournfully described him as “the Arizona Republican who once seemed poised to be his party’s nominee.”
According to the Times, “Mr. McCain’s advisers blamed his most recent spate of problems on his close association with the recently defeated immigration bill, which prompted a sharp backlash against his campaign among conservatives already skeptical of his ideological credentials.”
The same holds true for other Republicans who have flirted with amnesty. Ellmers didn’t lose, but a not-insignificant 41 percent of Republican primary voters cast ballots against her. Even a poll commissioned by a Michael Bloomberg-connected liberal immigration group concluded the issue was a modest net negative for her.
If there were three issues that did in Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants was surely one. (The second was his discombobulated debate performances and I can’t remember the third — get it?)
When Newt Gingrich tried to win Florida by attacking Mitt Romney’s enforcement-first position on immigration, the gambit failed so miserably that all of Sheldon Adelson’s horses and all of his men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Despite a gap of 16 years between their campaigns, Pete Wilson and Jan Brewer are two Republicans who saved their governorships by recognizing public angst about illegal immigration. More recently, Marco Rubio has dropped in polls of Republican voters since hitching his wagon to the Gang of Eight.
Amnesty opponents nevertheless have significant disadvantages. All of the money is on the other side of the issue. There is also the unfortunate fact that single-issue candidates are often crazy, even when they happen to be right about their one issue. And while the case can be made for tighter immigration controls without appealing to racism or bigotry — see Barbara Jordan — such candidates too often fail to do so.
The biggest problem, however, is that just as liberals and Bush-McCain Republicans exaggerate how important immigration is to Hispanics, restrictionist conservatives inflate how important it is to rank-and-file Republicans. The grassroots can be mobilized against bills like McCain-Kennedy or the Gang of Eight, no matter how many times amnesty supporters release polls purporting to show Republican enthusiasm for the principles behind comprehensive reform.
But that doesn’t mean a majority of them will throw out an incumbent Republican with which they are otherwise comfortable — especially if he is, say, the sitting House majority leader — based on immigration votes alone.
Endorsing amnesty or anything like it can cost a Republican a significant chunk of support. But until that chunk is a majority in a series of primaries, expect Republicans to prioritize the immigration views of the donors writing the checks.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.