House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat this week is being widely touted as a warning to Republicans contemplating immigration reform. The popular narrative has it that because Cantor's opponent, David Brat, is a hard-line immigration opponent who accused Cantor of being "pro-amnesty," immigration was the deciding factor in the race. But the facts don't bear out this restrictionist fantasy.
First, whatever else one can say about Cantor -- that he is one of the brightest members of the House, for example -- he is no friend to immigration reform. NumbersUSA, an opponent of both legal and illegal immigration, gave Cantor an overall B rating in its "report card" on his voting record from 2011-2014, including an A-plus on reducing "amnesty entitlements" and an A-minus on "reducing illegal jobs and presence." Cantor would have scored higher overall, but he voted for visas for high-tech and other needed workers, and the immigration restrictionists want no immigration, period.
What seems to have given Brat an opening to attack him was Cantor's willingness to consider allowing unauthorized immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children to serve in the military and earn the legal right to stay here and eventually become citizens. But when push came to shove and Republican Rep. Jeff Denham of California tried to get a vote on a bill to do just that, Cantor shut him down.
Cantor's defeat was a surprise, but is not an indication that immigration reform is toxic for Republicans. In fact, Sen. Lindsey Graham's overwhelming victory in his South Carolina primary on the same night suggests that being outspokenly pro-reform -- Graham co-sponsored the Senate immigration bill last year -- doesn't doom a GOP candidate. Graham's advantage was that he has been consistent and not afraid to explain his support for reform, while Cantor spoke out of both sides of his mouth, sounding amenable to very limited changes in the law to benefit kids brought here illegally by their parents, but then quashing actual legislation that would have accomplished that aim.
Polls consistently show that Republicans don't like the status quo. They want legal immigration reform, and a majority is in favor of legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants already here. A new poll out by FWD.us, conducted by 10 Republican polling firms, shows that more than two-thirds of GOP-registered voters, including tea party voters, self-identified strong conservatives and Republican Evangelicals, favor legalization or a path to citizenship. But the poll is even more interesting for what it says about Hispanics and the future of the Republican Party.
The GOP has lost important ground to Democrats in recent years because the party is viewed overwhelmingly by Hispanics as unfriendly to them. As I've written many times, Hispanic voters aren't monolithic in their support of Democrats. Going back more than 40 years, a significant proportion of Hispanics has voted for Republican candidates. Indeed, in the FWD.us poll, 51 percent of respondents say they have voted for a GOP candidate in the past.
The overwhelming majority of Hispanics who are registered to vote consider themselves moderate (28 percent), conservative (23 percent) or very conservative (13 percent). While Hispanics are not as suspicious of government as many Republican voters are -- 51 percent see government as a help in their daily lives -- they prefer smaller government and lower taxes over higher taxes and more services by more than two to one. They also see government's role as promoting opportunity, not fairness, by almost as high of a margin.
But the most important finding in the FWD.us poll is the way in which a candidate's position on immigration reform might influence a voter's choice. Three-quarters of Hispanic voters said they would be more likely to listen to a Republican candidate's views on other issues if the candidate supported immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
Cantor's loss shouldn't be read as a referendum on immigration reform. The only thing it proves is that being wishy-washy on reform leaves a candidate open to attacks by extremists on the issue who will gladly exploit the candidate's own fears into becoming reality. Graham's principled defense of his stance is the right model -- and the only one that gives Republicans a prayer of ever winning the White House again.
Linda Chavez is a nationally syndicated columnist.