Thank you for not passing immigration reform, guys. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
Thank you for not passing immigration reform, guys. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

What if the real divide in the GOP over immigration reform is not between the Tea Party and establishment wings of the party, but between those in the party who have scaled down its ambitions to only winning Congressional elections and those who still hope to win the White House?

That’s what a veteran GOP operative who wants reform suggested to me today, in the wake of Eric Cantor’s loss, but more on that in a sec.

Now that multiple observers have responded to Cantor’s defeat by declaring immigration reform even deader than they pronounced it months ago (who knew there were various degrees of deadness?), proponents of reform have produced a raft of new polling designed to prod Republicans out of their own brain-deadness on the issue.

Jon Lerner, a pollster with impeccable conservative credentials, has just published a survey (funded by pro-reform Fwd.us) taken in Cantor’s district yesterday that finds only 22 percent of Republicans who voted for David Brat cited immigration as the reason, while 77 percent cited other factors. “Immigration was not a major factor in Cantor’s defeat,” Lerner concludes.

Meanwhile, veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres released his own national survey that finds four out of five GOP primary voters nationally support a “step-by-step approach to immigration reform that emphasizes several key elements, including: border enforcement, E-verify, and earned legal status with significant conditions.” That may sound surprising, but Ayres has long thought that GOP primary voters can be won over on the issue once they’re reminded the status quo is the alternative.

All of this, of course, is beside the point, because Cantor’s loss is being interpreted as proof that reform is toxic, and what matters is the interpretation, not the reality. As Alex Roarty writes in a good post, Republicans may well know immigration was not the driving reason, but the shock is enough to produce a kind of generalized paranoia among GOP officials that will only reduce their willingness to take risks.

So immigration reform really is probably deader than it was last February, or last November, or even last July.

What is striking about what we’re seeing now, in the rush to lower immigration reform into the ground once again, is that many Republicans still know they need immigration reform for the long term good of the party, and know that isn’t going to change. Thus you now see over a dozen GOP pollsters screaming at the Republican Party that passing reform will help them over the long term:

In a memo shared with Post Politics, the pollsters write that nearly half (49 percent) of Hispanic voters blame Republicans in Congress for failing to pass reform and more than three in four (76 percent) say they would be more likely to listen to what Republicans have to say on other issues if they support reform.

And this brings us to the real divide in the GOP on this issue.

“People talk about the establishment wing versus the Tea Party wing, but there is actually a Congressional wing and a presidential wing,” Rob Jesmer, a longtime NRSC operative who is now working for Fwd.us, tells me. “If your sole concern is winning Congressional elections, you’re not concerned about passing immigration reform. But if you want to win the White House, then you do want to pass reform, because you understand that not doing this dramatically increases the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming president.”

Jesmer isn’t being glib here. Observers such as Ron Brownstein have speculated that some Republicans really may be hunkering down for the possibility that demographic realities may mean Congress will remain their sole stronghold as long as those realities remain unaddressed.

House GOP leadership aides say privately that they can always do reform in 2015. But for a host of reasons, it may well be harder (though not impossible) next year. And as Steve Benen lays out, whatever the real meaning of Cantor’s loss, none of the basic demographic and political reasons Republicans need to do this are going anywhere.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.