Eric Cantor’s unexpected loss to David Brat, a relatively unknown, Tea Party-backed candidate Tuesday has pundits across the spectrum reading the tea leaves, speculating about what it means for other primary races and for the 2014 midterms. By my lights, there are convincing close-to-the-ground reasons Cantor lost—poor tactical decisions to attack an unknown opponent early in the race, a widespread perception that he had lost touch with his constituents, inaccurate internal polling that misled him into thinking he had a comfortable lead, a redrawn district that was more rural, and perhaps even his Jewish religious identity in contrast to Brat’s pan-Christian background that combines a reformed Protestant college and seminary background with his current Catholic affiliation.
Like Tea Party challengers across the country, Brat sought to make immigration reform a defining issue in the campaign, accusing Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for immigrants in the country illegally, even though Cantor opposed the comprehensive, bipartisan Senate bill and only supported (but did not bring to the floor) a more limited Republican version of the DREAM Act, which allowed children brought to the U.S. illegally to be eligible for in-state college-tuition rates. Despite its prominence in the debate, there is good evidence that immigration reform was not the decisive factor in the election. Both a PRRI/Brookings poll released the same day as Cantor’s defeat and a poll conducted in Cantor’s district show majorities of Republicans supporting immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Moreover, Lindsey Graham handily won his primary in conservative South Carolina, despite being dubbed “Grahamnesty” by opponents.