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.