House majority leader Eric Cantor was defeated Tuesday night in the Republican primary for his House seat in Virginia—a truly shocking political loss in every sense of the word. Quite literally nobody in the political arena saw this coming, apparently including the challenger himself, Dave Brat, a professor of economics at Randolph-Macon College. He wouldn’t give a victory speech “until he was sure it was real,” according to Fox News host Megyn Kelly during the network’s Tuesday night broadcast.
The immediate question is obviously: How did this happen? How did one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress lose to a political neophyte that he outspent 26-to-1?
In politics, there’s a rush to find “the answer.” There’s no one reason why Cantor lost, but a crucial part of the story no doubt begins in Central America.
In recent months, tens of thousands of children unaccompanied by their parents have been flooding across the US border with Mexico. Sixty thousand will come this year, up tenfold from 2011, and as many as 130,000 may arrive in 2015. Lackland Air Force Base in Texas is filling up with these refugees, one of three military bases now being used to house the new arrivals. President Obama has declared it an “urgent humanitarian situation.”
The situation has gotten light to moderate coverage in the mainstream press, but in the right-wing press the coverage has been wall to wall: it has been relentlessly covered by online outlets like Breitbart News, and talked about incessantly on right-wing radio. Fox News has also devoted considerable attention to the crisis; the night before the Virginia primary, for example, Kelly had a long segment about it on her prime-time show.
Naturally, the right-wing concern isn’t exactly driven by a humanitarian spirit. The overwhelming message is that the influx—which will indeed cost taxpayers millions of dollars—is not only a harbinger of things to come but a direct result of Obama’s desire for immigration reform. Specifically, goes the narrative, Obama’s promise of a DREAM Act that would confer citizenship on undocumented youth is spurring the stampede.
This is mainly nonsense: for one, the proposed DREAM Act would apply only to youth living continuously in the United States for five years before enactment. Though right-wing outlets like the Drudge Report have found immigrants here and there aware of the bill and hopeful that it might apply to them, by and large analysts agree that increasing violence in Central America is driving parents to send their children to safer areas in large numbers. Escalating drug wars in Mexico and improved US economic conditions are making the United States the obvious landing spot for the northward-bound refugees.
But this all came at a terrible time for Cantor. His biggest foray into the immigration debate was to propose and draft a Republican version of the DREAM Act dubbed the KIDS Act. The bill stalled out late last year, in part over disagreements about whether youth who obtained citizenship would be able to then sponsor their parents for legalization.