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Eric Cantor Loss Leaves Immigration Reform Supporters Scrambling

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WASHINGTON -- Immigration reform supporters spent Wednesday fighting the notion that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) primary loss was a final nail in the coffin of their effort.

Some argued immigration wasn't what caused economics professor Dave Brat's shocking defeat of the second-ranking House leader. Some saw it as proof the focus should go to President Barack Obama to change the immigration system. Others said that the pressure on Congress would stay, and that they weren't giving up on a nationwide reform effort simply because voters in one congressional district ousted their congressman.

No one, though, pretended Cantor's loss was a positive sign for immigration reform -- and immigration reform desperately needs positive signs.

"It clearly doesn't simplify it," quipped Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has been working on legislative efforts.

The race between Cantor and Brat culminated in a battle over whether the majority leader is pro-"amnesty." Brat said he was, citing Cantor's statements on young undocumented immigrants and work on House GOP principles that would allow undocumented immigrants to gain legal status. Cantor, in aggressive mailers to constituents, insisted he was anything but. There were other factors as well, but given the campaign's focus on immigration, some opponents of the effort were quick to say Cantor's defeat proved the issue was toxic.

Those analysts may be wrong about what took down Cantor. But, as many pointed out, it doesn't matter whether immigration reform should get the blame. It matters whether it does.

The Obama administration, which delayed its review of deportation policy to focus on pressuring the House to pass legislation, downplayed the idea that Cantor's ouster showed something about immigration reform.

“Majority Leader Cantor campaigned very aggressively against common sense, bipartisan immigration reform, but yet in the analysis, there are some who suggest that his election was a key to getting immigration reform done," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. "I am not quite sure how people have reached that conclusion."

Democratic senators similarly questioned whether immigration was the reason for Cantor's failure.

They have some evidence on their side. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who, unlike Cantor, was an outspoken supporter of immigration reform, won his primary on the day Cantor lost. If Graham could win a primary despite drafting, passing and vehemently defending a bill that gave what some called "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants, reform supporters argued that it doesn't follow that Cantor killed his reelection by merely giving lip service to small pieces of reform. Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), supported addressing immigration reform and won her primary last month anyway.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), one of three Republicans to sign onto a Democratic-led comprehensive immigration bill, pointed to his own primary to show that supporting reform wasn't a career killer.

"Lindsey Graham won. Jeff Denham won soundly," Denham said. "There are a number of members that are really fighting on immigration reform that are doing very well in their elections. But again, we've got to pick up the bills and have a full debate."

Other Republicans shared the view that immigration wasn't the sole reason for Cantor's downfall. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has voiced support for working on reform, said immigration appeared to play a part in the race, but that "it's too early to tell" if it was the biggest factor. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said he didn't see it "as the central issue."

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who voted against the Senate immigration bill, but has argued for some type of reform, said Cantor's campaign may have had other problems, such as raising his opponent's name recognition with negative advertising.

"I think it's a mistake to try to paint it and decide that one issue decided this," Paul said on a call with reporters hosted by Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, in conjunction with pro-immigration reform group Partnership for a New American Economy.

Ellmers said she was "not sure that immigration was necessarily the issue" in Cantor's race. But she acknowledged that the defeat will make some Republicans hesitant to move forward.

"I think that right now, in the state of shock that we are all in, that that's probably on the forefront of thinking, that right now that's not where we need to go," Ellmers said. "That doesn't mean it's off the table."

Immigration reform advocates said they hoped Cantor's loss won't take the issue off the table for good. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said reform is "absolutely not" dead, although he expects Republicans who oppose reform to try to use Cantor's loss as an excuse.

Obama told the crowd at a fundraiser Wednesday evening that he wouldn't accept that excuse.

"It is interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts and some of the conventional wisdom talks about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now," Obama said of the election. "I fundamentally reject that. I will tell the speaker of the House that he needs to reject that."

The "reform may still be alive" camp has one unlikely member: Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), although for a different reason. The immigration hawk tweeted after Cantor's loss that it showed a "resounding rejection of amnesty," but said Wednesday that it doesn't mean House leadership won't try to push immigration reform anyway.

"I don't know what I would accept that would convince me that I could climb down off the watchtower and get a good night's sleep," King said. "The agenda has slowed down, but I would not say that it's stopped or dead."

Jennifer Bendery and Sabrina Siddiqui contributed reporting.

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