What Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat means

Tuesday’s defeat of the sitting House majority leader, Eric Cantor, apparently sent a series of “messages,” which we in the pundit world who missed all of the signs that The Shock Heard ’Round the Campaign World was coming, are beginning to interpret.

Among the strongest messages: Incumbents beware. To hear some tell it, this message is bipartisan. Because Democrats apparently are unfamiliar with the phenomenon of low turnout midterm elections in districts drawn to be more partisan than they were, which would be an interesting observation if it were actually true.

The reality is that in most states, the rates of incumbent reelection are incredibly high, often topping 90 percent for the U.S. House and Senate. In that sense, Cantor’s loss was refreshing, in the small “d” democratic sense. It was a welcome, but rare smack at incumbency.

But in the end, Cantor didn’t lose because voters are in a mood to bounce incumbents. He lost because voters, the fraction that bothered to turn out, were in a mood to bounce Eric Cantor.

Another purported message: Beware the power of the tea party, the professionalized rabble that operates with the largesse of multi-billionaires who let them operate out of the offices of the Republican Party proper. That tea party distinguished itself in Virginia by not helping Cantor’s victorious opponent, David Brat, one bit. And since the Republican Party already obeys the far right, it’s not clear that replacing Cantor with a different minority leader who will allow the government to shut down will make much difference.

It is, however, the third “message” that’s getting the most Beltway traction, and it’s one that can loosely be interpreted as aimed at politicians like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both of whom have at one time or another been apostates on immigration.

Bush, in particular, has been showing all the signs of wanting to run for president. And with Chris Christie’s political prospects washing under a bridge, and Rubio stumbling after a Senate immigration try, Bush has begun to emerge as the Great Florida Hope for the Citizens United crowd.

But Cantor’s defeat at the hands of a candidate who made opposing “amnesty” a core part of his platform, has thrown that logic into chaos again. Opposing “amnesty” was a popular stump line for the talk-radio host and gadfly Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, respectively, who took up Brat’s cause, with Ingraham even “joking” that Cantor should have been traded for U.S. POW Bowe Bergdahl instead of five members of the Taliban.

With Cantor’s defeat, the conventional wisdom goes, immigration reform is now not just dead, it’s really dead. No House member would dare vote for a path to citizenship now.

Except that this line of reasoning assumes that immigration reform was coming to a vote in the House any time soon. It has been sitting at a road-block for months, if not years, in no small part because the House leadership, including Cantor, has been blocking it, for fear that their caucus will revolt.

Immigration reform, which enjoys the support of a majority in the country, and probably in the House, too (we’ll never know because the speaker and his team won’t bring it up for a vote) was going nowhere fast before Tuesday’s blockbuster result, and it’s going nowhere fast afterward.

Meanwhile, a poll of Cantor’s district by Public Policy Polling found that 72 percent of registered voters in the 7th District support immigration reform, including 40 percent who strongly support it. Cantor’s real problem was that only 30 percent of those polled in his district approved of him.

The real lesson for those Republicans who say they want to do immigration reform seems to be that blocking it, as Cantor did repeatedly, won’t save you from your own unpopularity, especially in a low-turnout primary where your millions of dollars spent on TV ads and steak dinners with your campaign staff are competing with a low-budget campaign that’s knocking on doors.

To be sure, there is a hardened core of the Republican Party that will never accept immigration reform. But being afraid to stand up to them didn’t help Cantor, who likely made things worse by trying to drift onto both sides of the immigration debate.

For Jeb Bush and other Republicans who see the merits of reforming our broken immigration system, Cantor’s loss needn’t be an excuse to discourage the party from changing course. After all, for Cantor, it wasn’t courage that was costly.