WASHINGTON — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's defeat made emphatically clear what was already known on Capitol Hill: Immigration reform is dead, for the foreseeable future.
It also put a spotlight on GOP primaries — increasingly waged in congressional districts packed with white voters — that have encouraged candidates to take hard-line immigration positions while jeopardizing the health of the party.
"We've got to deal with this or we're going to be the party that does well in off years and never wins the presidential election," said GOP strategist Rob Jesmer, adding he is worried Republican lawmakers will misread Tuesday's election and keep far away from immigration.
"The facts speak for themselves. We got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote last time," Jesmer said, referring to the 2012 presidential election. "That is unsustainable."
The reasons for Cantor's blockbuster downfall are still being sorted out and it would be a mistake to attribute it solely to immigration.
The No. 2 Republican in the House, who announced Wednesday he would relinquish his leadership role, had grown disconnected with his Virginia district and he underestimated the passion of tea party activists, who saw any sign of compromise as disloyal. Cantor also made poorly timed power plays with the local GOP.
Still, immigration motivated voters, and the outcome is a reminder of how potent the issue is and the problem facing two potential 2016 presidential candidates from Florida: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Both have championed reform and endured backlash from conservatives. Bush is still getting hammered for saying earlier this year that many people who cross the border do so illegally but as an "act of love" for their families.
"The crisis at the border is growing every minute, every hour, every day," Cantor's challenger, David Brat, said on the eve of Tuesday's primary. "No House congressman has done more to encourage illegal immigration than Eric Cantor."
Brat maintained the attacks, amplified by radio host Laura Ingraham, Matt Drudge and other conservative figures, even as Cantor, who had supported some reform in Washington, veered right. In a mailer to voters in late May, Cantor boasted he had blocked a plan to give "illegal aliens amnesty." The issue grew more pronounced with reports in recent days of swelling numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border.
Cantor's Richmond area district was redrawn in 2010 and became more conservative, a move the lawmaker supported. That should have been job protection as he eyed becoming the next speaker of the House. Republican districts across the country have been drawn to stave off Democratic challenges.
But there's another consequence: More than 80 percent of Republicans have constituencies that are 20 percent or less Hispanic. "Republicans have essentially backed themselves into a corner," said David Wasserman, an expert on House elections with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They have whitewashed their districts to such an extent that there is little incentive to reach out on immigration."
So the short-term politics of running as an immigration hard-liner undercuts the long-term goal of reaching minority voters. Many Republican leaders think the party needs to tackle immigration reform to start a broader conversation with Hispanics, who represent a fast growing electorate as the share of white voters declines.
But there is division on the way to proceed. Rubio helped craft the Senate's bipartisan comprehensive bill last year that coupled billions in additional border security with an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented residents. The GOP-led House rejected that bill outright, saying it wanted to address the issue in steps, with security coming first.
Rubio has paid a price with falling poll numbers among conservatives. In turn, he began calling for the piecemeal approach and blaming inaction on distrust toward President Barack Obama to enforce the law, ignoring soaring deportations under the current administration.
Rubio straddled those two postures Wednesday.
"The status quo we have isn't good for America and needs to be fixed," he told reporters. "But I've been saying now for over a year and a half, getting the votes to move forward on any immigration reform is going to be impossible until serious steps are taken to secure the border, prevent visa overstays and require employers to verify the status of the people they are hiring. That was true before last night; that's especially true now."
Reform advocates say there has been significant movement in the past year. The business and faith community — pillars of the GOP — have been leading calls for action, and overshadowed in the Cantor news was this: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who along with Rubio helped write the Senate immigration bill and talked about the issue on the campaign trail, won his GOP primary.
Like Cantor, Graham's win is not a clean story; he aggressively cleared the field of tougher rivals. Regardless, the immigration battle is back in focus and now, the GOP faces a choice.
"Republicans can look at each other and say, 'That's not what this is about' and be willing to move forward on immigration," Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative who has called for reform, said of Cantor's loss. "Or they can say, 'Well, we don't think that's what it was, but to be safe' . . ."