It isn't often that I give advice that I think is good for the Republican Party. But there is little question that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary defeat should serve as a warning to the GOP. If they don't pass comprehensive immigration reform soon, there is more trouble ahead for the party.
Passing comprehensive immigration reform now would, in fact, be good for the Republican Party -- and the country.
The issue of immigration reform is not going away. The longer it remains unresolved, the easier it is for the party's extremist wing to use the issue to whip up nativist sentiment against its leaders. Immigration used to be a wedge issue in the Democratic Party. No longer. Now it is a wedge issue within the Republican Party and between the GOP and ordinary Americans. To the extent the extremists are successful at driving the party further and further out of the mainstream, they alienate the growing Hispanic population and isolate themselves from ordinary Americans who overwhelmingly want a solution.
That may or may not have a big impact on the results in 2014 -- but it could very well drive the GOP into permanent minority status in the Congress and prevent it from retaking the White House for a generation.
If they truly had the interests of the Republican Party at heart, House Speaker Boehner and the lame duck Cantor should call the bipartisan immigration bill passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and let it pass the House as well. The overwhelming majority of Republicans can vote against it if they wish, but the issue would then be off the table for 2016 and the foreseeable future.
That would be great for the GOP as it tries to reconnect with Hispanic voters and reflect the views of the vast majority of Americans. It would also be wonderful for the millions of families that are torn apart by the current broken immigration system.
Even in Cantor's own district there is overwhelming support for immigration reform. A Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll taken in Virginia's 7th CD on election night for Americans United for Change showed that:
72% of voters in Cantor's district support the bipartisan immigration reform legislation on the table in Washington right now to only 23% who are opposed. And this is an issue voters want to see action on. 84% think it's important for the US to fix its immigration system this year, including 57% who say it's 'very' important. Even among Republicans 58% say it's 'very' important, suggesting that some of the backlash against Cantor could be for a lack of action on the issue.
And if you ever wanted evidence that the issue isn't going away, read the Washington Post's account of what happened at the Cantor victory party:
As if the political drama were not powerful enough, chaos erupted at election night headquarters shortly after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor conceded his stunning defeat to tea party-backed conservative David Brat.
Cantor addressed his supporters for about four minutes at a suburban Richmond hotel ballroom, then boarded an SUV without taking questions from reporters scurrying after him.
Then it got really rambunctious. In the room of downcast Cantor allies, a new energy suddenly erupted -- but not the kind they wanted on election night. A group of immigration activists stormed the ballroom, screaming and waving a flag. "What do we want? Immigration reform! When do we want it? Now!"
In fact, immigration was not the major factor in Cantor's defeat at all. According to the PPP poll:
Cantor has only a 30% approval rating in his district, with 63% of voters disapproving. The Republican leadership in the House is even more unpopular, with just 26% of voters approving of it to 67% who disapprove. Among GOP voters Cantor's approval is a 43/49 spread and the House leadership's is 41/50. Those approval numbers track pretty closely with Cantor's share of the vote last night.
And on the very same night Cantor went down to defeat, one of the cosponsors of the bipartisan Senate immigration bill, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, easily won against a Tea Party challenger.
But none of that will stop the extremist wing of the Republican Party from using immigration to mobilize a vocal minority to attack GOP leaders, drive the Party to the right, alienate the party from most Hispanics and the moderate voters who don't want to be associated with hatred and bigotry -- and the views of most Americans.
Best advice for the future of the GOP: Get it over with. Pass immigration reform now and change the subject. This one is not good for your long-term political health.
Will they take my advice? Pretty low odds. But then again, as last night showed ever so clearly, surprises can happen in American politics.