Talk about being kicked to the curb. A little-known, under-financed tea party challenger crushed seven-term Congressman and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in an unusual primary loss.

As Washington insiders struggled to make sense of the Virginia Republican’s stunning political upset, they seized on the fact that Cantor’s opponent had run on opposition to the GOP leader’s supposed support for “amnesty.” Many journalists and pundits rushed to declare that Cantor lost because of his support for immigration reform. Therefore, they concluded, immigration reform is dead.

Not so fast. Cantor didn’t lose because he supported immigration reform. Cantor lost because of his inaction on immigration reform, plus several strategic errors. His defeat can teach the Republican Party a good lesson — if it’s willing to face facts.

Eric Cantor

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Cantor never became a strong supporter of immigration reform, and certainly didn’t distinguish himself as a leader on the issue. He voted against the DREAM Act, which would have helped young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children become citizens. As majority leader, he blocked votes on even minor immigration bills.

Sure, Cantor talked about the need for reform. But it was just talk. Voters probably decided they’d had enough of him talking out of both sides of his mouth on this issue and others, and that’s why they booted him out of office.

Polls show that voters in Cantor’s district support immigration reform. In a survey by Public Policy Polling, 72 percent of voters in his district said they supported immigration reform. A strong majority (84 percent) said they wanted Congress to fix immigration this year. Other polls by both liberal and conservative groups found similar results. So Cantor can’t blame his loss on the immigration issue.

In fact, if Cantor had shown more leadership on immigration, he might not have suffered a resounding loss to David Brat in the primary. Other Republicans who are bigger supporters of immigration reform won their primaries. For example, Senator Lindsey Graham easily defeated his challengers in South Carolina. Graham is one of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” who crafted an immigration reform bill last year.

If it wasn’t really immigration, why did Cantor lose? It’s no mystery. Cantor lost because he ran a lousy campaign and was out of touch with his district. He failed to take his opponent seriously until late in the race, which was a big mistake. Tending to party business all over the country, he spent big bucks on steak houses, charter flights, and luxury hotels while his opponent built a grassroots movement.

By contrast, Cantor rarely went to his district much and avoided Town Halls. One poll found that 63 percent of voters in his district disapproved of his job performance.

Cantor’s loss doesn’t mean that immigration reform is dead. At most, it may only be dead for now. So many Americans of all political affiliations support reform that it’s only a matter of time before it happens. The problem for Republicans is that the longer they let the issue drag on, the more it will hurt them with voters.

True, Cantor’s opponent is no doubt excited that he won on an anti-immigrant platform. However, this one House race doesn’t provide a successful roadmap for the national GOP.

Until Republicans become willing to team up with Democrats on immigration, they’re doomed to looking at the White House from the outside.

“Pain can be a good teaching tool sometimes,” Mario H. Lopez, a Republican and the Hispanic Leadership Fund’s executive director, told the Associated Press. “It may take another White House beatdown before some folks understand what kind of cliff they’re walking over.”

Lopez is right. No candidate can win a national election without Latino voters and independent voters — and both of these groups back immigration reform.

If Eric Cantor wants to understand his loss, he should take a good look in the mirror. His primary results were a vote against him, not against immigration reform. The sooner House Republicans accept this truth, the better off their party and the country will be.

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Raul A. Reyes

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.
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