It was a big loss for Cantor. Not for immigration reform. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
It was a big loss for Cantor. Not for immigration reform. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Immigration reform is dead. That’s the prevailing view after House majority leader Eric Cantor’s loss in the Republican primary in Virginia on Tuesday. After all, Cantor was seen as willing to agree to immigration reform legislation, and any on-the-fence Republicans will now be scared off by his stunning defeat.

It’s safe to say that nothing will pass this year. With the midterm elections just five months off, it’s unlikely that any incumbents will step out in faith to engage on one of the nation’s touchiest subjects. Passage of an immigration reform bill this year, even had Cantor won, was a low-probability event anyway.

But I’m not convinced the conventional wisdom is right with respect to what happens in 2015 and beyond. Cantor’s loss could create a greater likelihood that immigration reform succeeds in the future. Why?

Swerving Path to Citizenship

First, Cantor’s stance on the issue was confusing at best. While pro-reform forces saw him as an ally, the primary campaign he waged suggested otherwise. He was focused on shoring up his conservative bona fides with voters by emphasizing his opposition to “amnesty” or a comprehensive approach to solving the problem. So his loss doesn’t necessarily leave the cause without a Republican champion. Indeed, it may clarify things since both Speaker John Boehner and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy have repeatedly stated their desire to see the House pass immigration reform measures.

Second, it’s possible that Cantor’s loss will put another pro-reform member in the leadership of the House Republican Conference -- assuming Boehner remains speaker, McCarthy moves up to majority leader, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington becomes majority whip. Of course, we’ll likely see challenges for all three leadership positions. McMorris Rodgers herself may decide to run for majority leader. But Boehner, McCarthy and McMorris Rodgers all have substantial support from within the conference, and it isn’t clear that Tea Party-affiliated Republicans will be able to align behind a single challenger for each of the posts.

Third, the fundamental dynamic that haunted Republicans in 2012 still exists: Unless they are able to demonstrate some leadership on immigration reform, they risk forfeiting the Latino vote in 2016. Even if a perceived moderate on the issue, such as Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, ends up being the Republican presidential nominee, the party will be held liable for inaction. This will have consequences for the nominee and candidates in states with sizable Hispanic populations.

Finally, the likelihood that President Barack Obama considers a compromise with Republicans will increase in 2015 as his attention turns entirely to legacy-building after the midterms. He will be more interested in accomplishing what he can, rather than holding out for a solution that meets all his criteria.

Republican Senator Rand Paul noted on Wednesday that Cantor’s loss shouldn’t end the conversation about immigration reform. I think that’s telling. When someone who rose to power with significant Tea Party support says the door to legislation is open, it is premature to write its obituary.

To contact the writer of this article: Lanhee Chen at lchen301@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.