House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s shocking primary defeat Tuesday has moved the issue of immigration reform back into the national spotlight, creating a challenge for Republican Ed Gillespie, who is taking on Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va.
The role that the immigration issue played in Dave Brat’s historic upset of Cantor forces Gillespie to walk a tightrope between anti-immigration conservatives and moderates and independents who consider reform a necessity.
“The one issue where the GOP is divided is immigration,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, political science professor at University of Mary Washington. “Warner will likely focus on it as much as he can.”
“It’s an issue that tends to be a net benefit for Democrats in statewide elections. But what Gillespie will try to do is limit the negative impact that the immigration issue can have on him,” he said.
Cantor, opposed by some as an out-of-touch establishment Republican, stumbled in part over his stance on immigration reform, exposing himself to fierce attacks from Brat.
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The economics professor from Henrico County claimed that Cantor was pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants. Cantor denied the charge but said that children of illegal immigrants should not suffer because their parents brought them to this country.
Cantor also played an instrumental role in not allowing the bipartisan immigration bill that emerged from the Senate last year to come up for a vote on the House floor.
Running for statewide office is different than running in a conservative district trying to get a party nomination, Farnsworth said.
“Gillespie already has his nomination, so now his focus has to be on the more moderate voters who will decide who will be the next senator of Virginia,” he said.
On his campaign website, Gillespie wrote that it would be “in the interest of both American citizens and those here illegally to be able to come forward and, after a series of processes (i.e., criminal background checks, payment of back taxes, assimilation, demonstration of self sufficiency), be issued new visas to be here legally.”
Gillespie spokesman Paul Logan added Friday that this would include children who were brought here illegally by their parents.
But Logan also emphasized Gillespie does not support citizenship for those who have come here illegally, “which wouldn’t be fair to those who have come here legally and played by the rules.”
“He believes we must secure our border, and the steps we take to do so will also allow for a rational system of legal immigration,” Logan said.
Gillespie would not, Logan added, vote for the bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate that would put more than 12 million undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.
That’s a flip from last summer, when Gillespie said on CNBC, “I don’t think that the bill is a perfect bill, no one does. But it is the right approach, and it can be perfected. […] At the end of the day, it’s good policy and it is good politics.”
Farnsworth said Gillespie is aiming to find a middle ground on an issue that has vexed Republicans.
“Without a greater share of the Latino vote, Republicans are going to lose a lot of national and statewide elections. Gillespie’s approach is designed to not provide amnesty, but it doesn’t go as far as many conservatives would like in that it does offer a path to residency and legal status,” he said. “This is an effective approach for Gillespie.”
Yet Gillespie will not want the race to focus on immigration, Farnsworth said.
“The more the discussion of this campaign focuses on immigration, the worse for him. By trying to develop a middle ground, Gillespie’s hope is that the campaign discourse will focus on other topics. Gillespie wants to draw sharper differences with Warner on a variety of other issues, not immigration.”
Warner spokesman David Turner said that the senator has “proudly worked across the aisle” to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but that the tea party caucus in the House blocked the legislation.
“Virginians want fewer partisan warriors and more leaders working together to solve problems like our broken immigration system,” Turner said.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said it will be hard for Gillespie to steer clear of debates on immigration reform.
“I don’t think you can finesse the immigration issue now that it is so prominent after the Cantor defeat,” Sabato said.
“Warner’s goal is to make Gillespie squirm, and upset anti-immigration Republicans who want to hear Gillespie denounce ‘amnesty’ while also making Hispanics and other pro-immigration voters mad at him.”
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