Democrats torn on whether to cheer or jeer Cantor departure

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has "as much sympathy for Mr. Cantor as he would want me to have for him," two days after former House majority leader Eric Cantor's loss to tea party candidate David Brat in Virginia's Republican primary. (Associated Press)

 

For congressional Democrats, Wednesday put Capitol Hill’s political contradictions on perfect display.

The surprise primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was welcome -- if shocking -- news for most Democrats.

"As kids we all had that nightmare on a Saturday morning that we overslept for school, or missed a test," said Rep. Joe Crowley, (D-N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "This is like the mature nightmare of a member of Congress: they wake up and have a dream that they lost their seat. Except that when it really happens and it's more than a nightmare, it's a reality."

But the whirlwind that encompassed Capitol Hill following one of the biggest electoral upsets in modern politics derailed a day Democrats hoped would focus on a student loan provision they had pushed to a vote in the Senate while also raising a new fear that compromising with House Republicans will be all but impossible once a new majority leader is installed to replace Cantor.

Much like their Republican counterparts, Democrats say they were genuinely shocked that Cantor, a seven-term congressman with a massive fundraising operation, was ousted by a little-known, barely funded college professor.

But, even before Democrats had completely digested the news, Cantor's defeat quickly presented a bit of a messaging dilemma.

They want to cheer the looming ideological battle among House Republicans over the now-open No. 2 spot in the House while assuring allies that the fight for bills addressing voting rights and immigration reform -- major legislative priorities for the Democrats as well as crucial components of their 2014 midterm messaging -- are not now dead in the water.

In interviews with The Post and other media outlets Wednesday, top Democrats slowly and deliberately walked this messaging tightrope.

The first component of the Democratic messaging about Cantor's defeat was to stress that these primary results are evidence that the Republican Party is under the control of far-right tea party groups.

"The country will increasingly see them as the party led by the nose by the extreme right. It's bad news for those of us who hoped there was a glimmer of a chance for compromise on some big issues," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Democrats' House leadership team. "Clearly the election in Virginia last night shows that the Republican far right is not interested in practical problem solving."

Some Democrats noted the growing push by some of the most conservative GOP House members to insist that the next majority leader hail from a "red state."

Pointing to that vocal push among the most conservative House Republicans as well as Cantor's defeat, one Democratic leadership aide said they were representative of the GOP's rightward shift.

"This is the death of the moderate House Republican," the aide said.

Several Democratic House members and aides said Wednesday that they do not have a specific preference among Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif), Pete Sessions (Tex.) and Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), who are currently the three Republican House members considered in the running for Cantor's post.

"I'll endorse or trash whichever helps them pick the weakest one," Crowley said.

While stressing that the race to replace Cantor will highlight the stranglehold the tea party has over the Republican House majority, Democrats have also been careful to point out that they still believe achieving immigration reform is possible this year.

The calculus, Democratic strategists acknowledge, is that they must avoid discouraging the progressive activists on immigration and voting rights as well as the left-leaning voters who care about those issues or risk inadvertently discouraging them from showing up at the polls this November.

"It's not," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Wednesday afternoon in response to her assertion that the chances of immigration reform passing this year are dead. "The votes existed yesterday for comprehensive immigration reform. We don't need one Republican to risk their incumbency in the Congress of the United States to pass. There are dozens of men and women in the Republican Party."

Gutierrez and others stressed that they hope they'll be able to convince other Republicans to come around on the issue and that hope for getting a comprehensive package through Congress this year is still alive.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who told reporters on Wednesday that Cantor was not a major force pushing for immigration reform inside the House GOP, is expected to address the Republican House leadership shakeup at length at her weekly press conference on Thursday.

"I think this whole thing about it being dead is exaggerated," Pelosi said.

Her aides have also insisted that Cantor's ouster will not make it any harder to pass legislation on immigration reform.

"I think that he was just doing things here in D.C. to give the illusion that he was pushing for immigration inside the caucus," said Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesman. "At the end of the day, he has been in the way [of immigration reform] more than anything else... Efforts [to push Republicans for a vote] can go on without him."

Despite the Democrats' careful insistence that Cantor's defeat does not further doom the chances of immigration reform, a conventional wisdom quickly developed among some on the Hill that he would serve as a cautionary tale for the remainder of this congressional session.

“If we bring something to the floor on immigration it will blow up the conference,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told reporters on Wednesday afternoon. Asked if he thought Cantor's defeat was due to his willingness to compromise on immigration reform, King added: “I don’t think there is any question about it.”

In response, Democrats have been insistent that Cantor's loss was not due to his support, at times, for an immigration reform package that includes a pathway to citizenship for those currently in the country illegally.

"Some of you saw there was an interesting election yesterday," President Obama said while speaking at a fundraiser in Weston, Mass., on Wednesday evening. "It is interesting to listen to the pundits and the analysts and some of the conventional wisdom talk about how the politics of immigration reform seem impossible now. I fundamentally reject that."

The most common retort from Democrats has been to point to Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham who, despite being a leading advocate for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, easily secured victory over six primary challengers in South Carolina on the same night that Cantor was defeated.

Graham's primary victory, some Democrats insist, shows that Republicans should not fear being vocal advocates for a comprehensive immigration reform and instead should be even more open advocates for it than Cantor was if they intend to avoid his fate.

"The Republican Party has two paths it can take on immigration: the Graham path of showing leadership and solving a problem in a mainstream way, which leads to victory; or the Cantor path of trying to play both sides, which is a path to defeat," declared Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading Democrat in the upper congressional chamber, during a floor speech delivered Wednesday afternoon. "The lesson Republicans should take from last night is that embracing and showing leadership on immigration reform is a far better path to victory than running from it, particularly for Republicans who are not tea party members but mainstream conservatives."

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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