Cantor Running Scared

In the latest round of Republican excuses for inaction on immigration reform, there’s a new culprit: Eric Cantor’s actually struggling in his re-election primary. Here’s how Juan Williams puts it at The Hill:

When Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) was recently asked why he has failed to get an immigration bill to the floor, he reacted by saying “Me?” Boehner appeared to be passing the buck to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who sets the schedule for floor votes….

At the moment, Cantor wants no part of anything that can be labeled “amnesty.” He started backtracking on support for reform during his fight to win Tuesday’s GOP primary in his congressional district. Cantor is facing a hard-right challenger, Dave Brat, who opposes any citizenship or legal status for illegal immigrants as “amnesty.”

Some of you may recall that last month Cantor was humiliated at his own 7th district GOP convention when he was booed lustily by many delegates just before his hand-picked candidate for district chairman was rejected. Tomorrow he faces conservative economics professor Dave Brat at the polls, and though Cantor is heavily favored, it’s not a slam dunk. On Friday a poll commissioned by the Daily Caller showed the incumbent well below 50% in committed supporters, and only leading 52-39 with leaners added in. The poll didn’t show immigration as a red-hot issue, but did show that about a third of GOP voters in Cantor’s district have really hard-core, round-em-all-up views about undocumented workers:

Only 9 percent of respondents in the poll said immigration was their top-most issue. Cantor’s team has flooded mailboxes with flyers saying that says he has blocked the Senate’s June 2013 rewrite of immigration laws, and that he opposes amnesty for illegals.

The poll shows that Cantor’s primary voters strongly oppose illegal immigration. Sixty-four percent said government should focus on blocking illegal immigration, while only 26 percent said the focus should be to “deal with the immigrants who are currently in the U.S. illegally.”

Only 23 percent said “there needs to be a humane way for immigrants to come out of the shadows and gain legal status.” In contrast, 33 percent support deporting “every immigrant who is in the U.S. illegally.” Forty-four percent want “something in between” legalization and complete deportation, said the poll.

So if the primary explains Cantor’s lassitude towards action on immigration in the House, will he spring back to life after the votes are in tomorrow (assuming, of course, that he wins)? I dunno. Nothing would give more impetus to a challenge to Cantor next cycle than that sort of screw-you gesture to the conservatives of his district. And Cantor also has to pay attention to keeping a majority of House Republicans in his camp for his presumed ascension to the top House job when John Boehner hangs it up. With each day the odds of any action on immigration reform erodes a bit more. What’s mainly interesting at the moment is when and how House GOP leaders officially throw in the towel.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.