Tea Party Candidate Uses Immigration Issue To Beat Cantor

Already dim prospects for an immigration overhaul got even dimmer after Republican House Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary this week. What does this mean for Republicans going forward?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he will step down from his leadership post after losing his primary bid for reelection Tuesday. In an upset that nobody saw coming, Cantor was beaten by a Tea Party challenger who campaigned hard against immigration reform. Now lawmakers say chances for a conference of immigration bill this year are slimmer than ever. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Eric Cantor never did much to advance comprehensive integration reform. But that didn't stop his challenger, David Brat, from painting the majority leader as soft on illegal immigrants. Roy Beck, whose group, Numbers USA, wants to reduce the flow of newcomers to the U.S., says if immigration reform wasn't already a third rail for Republicans in Congress, it is now.

ROY BECK: Candidates incumbents don't need to have necessary proof of something as much as just the suggestion of danger and they tend to walk away from it.

HORSLEY: But reform advocates insist they're not giving up. Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois warns the GOP will pay a price if Republican House numbers continue to drag their feet.

CONGRESSMAN LUIZ GUTIERREZ: The Republican Party and the Republican leadership has a difficult choice. They can choose to address the immigration issue head on and get it resolved, or they can go back to the bunker, sharpen their anti-Obama knives and never get to the White House - and the next generation possibly, too.

HORSLEY: National Republican leaders acknowledge their party will have to win more of the fast-growing Latino vote if it hopes to have a shot at regaining the White House, but that's not necessarily the top priority for Republican House members.

SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE: Tip O'Neill was right. All politics is local.

HORSLEY: Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a political analyst at the University of Southern California.

BEBITCH JEFFE: To run for president, you have to reach out and build upon your base. But if you're running within one district, you have to reflect your base. You have to reflect the voters who will turn out to vote.

HORSLEY: And demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution says voters in many Republican House districts don't look like the rest of America.

WILLIAM FREY: It's been estimated that about 80 percent of Republican House members represent districts that are whiter than the country as a whole.

HORSLEY: Latinos make up seven percent of the population. But only about five percent of the people in Eric Cantor's district are Latino. In fact, three out of five House Republicans represent districts where Latinos make up 10 percent of the population or less. Frey says it's little wonder those politicians have been slow in responding to big demographic changes.

FREY: The country is becoming browner, but it's becoming browner at different speeds in different places. And many of the rural and small-town areas, even in diverse states, Republicans have to cater to a very different demographic than the country is going to see in the next 10-20 years - even by 2016, in the presidential election.

HORSLEY: Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling says a survey in his Cantor's district Tuesday actually found widespread support for immigration reform, even among Republicans. Jensen points the results of a Senate primary this week in conservative South Carolina.

TOM JENSEN: Lindsey Graham, who's been far more moderate on immigration than Cantor, easily got reelected. So I think that's another sign that this maybe was a lot more about Cantor being too interested in his national profile, too inattentive to the district and those being his problems more so than immigration.

HORSLEY: In a Capitol Hill news conference yesterday, Cantor said he'll back Congressman Kevin McCarthy if, as expected, McCarthy runs for House Majority Leader. Like Cantor, McCarthy has taken a cautious approach to immigration reform. But unlike Cantor, McCarthy represents a California district where Latinos make up 37 percent of the population. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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