America is a big place. One primary does not America make.
The Beltway — and just the Beltway, because few others were paying attention — was stunned Tuesday night when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary to Dave Brat, a man no one in Washington was familiar with until late Tuesday afternoon but now everyone is an expert on. Naturally, the shocking news prompted journalists all over D.C. to flock to Twitter for a speculation session on what the loss portends.
Dave Weigel, Slate’s whip smart political blogger who moonlights as Twitter’s most sarcastic tweeter, provided the type of instant analysis he so often mocks: “So, tell me again how Jeb ‘Common Core/Immigration reform; Bush wins a single GOP primary,” tweeted Weigel, who to his credit did provide coverage of Brat before his shocking win.
Can we really extrapolate Cantor’s loss to tell us something so declarative about the 2016 Republican presidential primary?
Superficially, it does seem that Cantor’s loss had something to do with his stance on immigration. But at the same time Cantor saw his dreams of being Speaker of the House evaporate, Lindsey Graham won his Republican Senate primary in South Carolina. Graham was part of the Senate Gang of Eight that put together a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for a good chunk of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens residing in the country. Some refer to that provision as an amnesty, or as our friends in the comment section sometimes call it, a Grahamnesty.
In other words, the same people who would be upset with Cantor for his stance on immigration reform would be furious at Graham. And yet, he won his GOP primary by a solid margin. And not in New Jersey. In South Carolina.
Indeed, the truth is that most polls show that a majority of Republicans support a type of legalization proposal similar to what Graham helped write and pass through the Senate and, to a much more limited extent, Cantor supported in the House. There is even a poll of self-identified tea party sympathizers that shows that 70 percent support an immigration bill that would provide some type of pathway to legalization for illegal aliens in the country if certain conditions are met.
Perhaps these polls are all wrong. Perhaps the political class has overlooked the potency of the immigration issue for voters. But it is also possible that we are exaggerating the importance of one House primary, however shocking its result. What if all Cantor’s supporters stayed home because they thought their man was safe and everyone who opposed immigration reform showed up? Maybe Cantor was tossed out because voters thought he cared more about rising the House leadership ranks than representing them?
We will get endless postmortems on what happened in Virginia’s 7th District Republican primary. But whatever happened, it probably doesn’t tell us that Jeb Bush, or anyone else considering a 2016 run, can’t win the Republican nomination, much less a single primary. After all, who won the last two GOP presidential nominations? It wasn’t Tom Tancredo and Michele Bachmann. It was Mitt Romney, who as Massachusetts governor signed into law a health-care bill similar to Obamacare, and John McCain, perhaps the most ardent Republican supporter of a pathway to legalization for illegal aliens in Congress.
So Cantor’s loss probably tells us something. What that is isn’t all that clear yet.