The slam-bang, end-of-the-world defeat of Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor signifies... what? The chattering class will find support for its varied pre-existing explanations, a lot of it true. But don't discount pure bad luck and bad timing.
Outside of the right-wing echo chamber, the notion of Eric Cantor as insufficiently conservative is tough to accept. Smart he is. He provided intellectual cover and legislative expertise to a movement seeking to repeal the New Deal, Obamacare and the social safety network. There were none of the warning signs of carelessness or ideological impurity that often lead to sudden defeat, especially in primaries.
Except. Cantor was not a reliable opponent of immigration reform, or amnesty, depending on your vocabulary. Within Tea Party circles that constitutes surrender to the Chamber of Commerce, a bastion of liberalism. In a Republican primary, that's an accusation that can stick, and it stuck to Cantor.
Even so, he seemed to have things under control. Until an unexpected stroke of bad luck. Children. Tens of thousands of children. Little children, adolescents. On their own. A sort of modern-day Children's Crusade occurred, and even worse, got a lot of national attention. In the week leading up to the Cantor primary tens of thousands of unaccompanied children had been crossing the US/Mexico border. One logical and widely circulated explanation was that the Dream Act and various Obama administrative actions had taught a lot of families that children who came over the border illegally had a good chance of staying in the US. Their parents didn't. Thirty thousand kids poured in, were arrested and started to overwhelm detention facilities.
"See what happens when you even think about "amnesty"!!! cried talk radio. A potent but abstract issue had a face and unrelenting TV time. It reminded the Republican base that Cantor had strayed on how to treat undocumented children. In the end, a controllable Tea Party challenge caught fire and Cantor was a dead duck.
This ain't chopped liver. The expected right-wing electoral bogeymen had begun to diminish. Obamacare was working, climate change was everywhere, gay marriage was yesterday's fight. Something new was needed. The Tea Party, we fearlessly predict, will turn to "amnesty" and try to broaden the argument. You will hear that illegal immigration and amnesty are the real causes of extended economic stagnation. You will hear that immigration and amnesty are the real cause of economic inequality. "Those people" depress wages and make life impossible for working families.
There's a long history of using immigration as a wedge issue in elections. Sometimes it works. Eric Cantor succumbed to acute paedophobia, a fear of children. Get ready for a Republican onslaught seeing if fear of children will spread beyond the 7th District of Virginia. They don't have much else.
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