Why Eric Cantor Lost and Lindsey Graham Won

The lessons Republicans will take from Tuesday night—that immigration reform is toxic and the Tea Party is formidable—aren't the ones they should take.
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Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

On Tuesday night, a Republican who'd just won a tough primary stood before a crowd of his supporters and pledged not to back down from the issue of immigration reform, vowing to "solve the 11 million in a practical way." That Republican, of course, was not House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who unexpectedly lost to a little-known Tea Party challenger who accused him of promoting "amnesty." It was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who took 56 percent of the vote against six conservative challengers in one of the reddest states in the country.

So why did Graham win while Cantor lost? If Republican base voters' antagonism to immigration reform sunk Cantor, as many are now saying, it doesn't make sense. But the difference between the two men's campaigns is instructive.

Graham ran on immigration, while Cantor ran away from it. Graham talked about his support for a path to citizenship at nearly every campaign stop, touting his work with Democrats on the issue as evidence of his willingness to solve tough problems in Washington. By his calculus, voters would accept a difference of opinion, but they wouldn't accept insincerity. Cantor, on the other hand, tried to be all things to all people. He voted against the DREAM Act, but to the business lobby, whose campaign donations he reaped, he signaled support for a scaled-back version of it; earlier this week, Graham told me he believes Cantor, to whom he is close, "gets it" when it comes to the need for reform. But in Cantor's scorched-earth campaign against David Brat, he distributed mailers that boasted about having blocked immigration reform in the House—an analysis frustrated immigration-reform advocates would agree with. It wouldn't be surprising if voters were reacting more to Cantor's inconsistency than to his perceived position.

In fact, there's evidence most Republican primary voters aren't opposed to immigration reform. In a poll of Cantor's district commissioned by the liberal group Americans United for Change on Tuesday, 72 percent of voters expressed support for comprehensive reform—including 70 percent of Republicans. That might seem like a self-serving result given the source. But it's consistent with reams of other polls, including many by reputable nonpartisan and conservative pollsters. It's also consistent with the track record of Republicans who've been attacked in primaries for supporting immigration reform: Nearly all of them have won. Just last month in North Carolina, Republican Representative Renee Ellmers faced a challenge from an anti-amnesty activist who said that "multiculturalism is a problem for our country." Ellmers continued to vocally support reform and even called talk-radio host Laura Ingraham "ignorant" for opposing it. Ellmers won her primary, 58 percent to 41 percent.

Cantor's mistakes went beyond his immigration incoherence, as my colleague David Graham (no relation to Lindsey) has reported. His campaign was maximally disingenuous, attempting to tar Brat, a deeply religious Catholic and hardcore free-market libertarian, as a "liberal college professor." Brat believes Cantor's blitz of sleazy advertising actually helped the challenger by elevating his profile and making disgusted voters aware there was an alternative to Cantor. Meanwhile, activists resented Cantor's attempts to strong-arm the local GOP, his coziness with financial elites, and his focus on climbing the leadership ladder in Washington.

Graham is at least as ambitious as Cantor was. He just wasn't dishonest about it. He told his constituents, over and over again, why he felt it was important to be in the arena legislating and getting things done, rather than simply railing against a broken system and voting "no." But Graham made sure he didn't fall out of touch with his constituents, returning to South Carolina almost every weekend and cultivating a responsive service office modeled on that of his Senate predecessor, the late Strom Thurmond. (Thurmond famously held the seat for 46 years. On Monday, Graham joked, "The seat doesn't come open too often—let's keep it that way.") Graham also planned for a tough campaign from the beginning, whereas Cantor seems to have been caught by surprise. By the time he began pouring money into the race in April, it may have been too late.

The lessons Republicans are drawing from Cantor's defeat are clear: Stay the heck away from immigration reform—and fear the resurgent Tea Party. But the Tea Party's victories since 2010 have almost always come against incumbents who got complacent or stayed on past their prime. Graham's victory shows the lessons Republicans should take away instead: Be prepared. Run a smart campaign. And don't run away from what you believe, even when it comes to immigration.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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