White House: Lindsey Graham won and Cantor lost because Graham really tried to sell immigration reform

I was willing to give them a pass on this moronic theory last night because, like everyone else, they were caught off-guard by Dave Brat’s upset and needed to cook up some spin on the fly.

What’s the excuse for still pushing it 18 hours later?

“Majority Leader Cantor campaigned very aggressively against common sense, bipartisan immigration reform but yet in the analysis there are some who suggest that his election was a key to getting immigration reform done,” [White House press secretary Josh] Earnest said. “I am not quite sure how people have reached that conclusion. It is the view of the White House that there is support all across the country for common sense bipartisan immigration reform.”

Like Senate Democrats have, Earnest pointed out that a sponsor and advocate for the Senate bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, won his Republican primary on the same night Cantor lost his.

Graham made a “persuasive case why comprehensive immigration reform was the right thing for the country.”

So Grahamnesty, who hails from a deeply red state, won by … shilling outright for legalizing illegals whereas Cantor, whose home state is more moderate, got obliterated for pushing … something more moderate? Hello?

In fairness to Earnest, though, he’s smart to contrast Graham’s win with Cantor’s loss, even if no one takes the White House’s explanation seriously. It does seem odd at first blush that someone universally recognized as a RINO would win easily in a state that’s famously conservative while Cantor, a more reliable righty, would fall apart back home. How do you square that circle? Actually, pretty easily. Re-read this morning’s post about Cantor’s fatal disengagement from his home district, a perception among voters that Brat’s populist campaign fully exploited. Or better yet, don’t re-read it. Read Sean Trende’s elegant piece at RCP making the same point instead. He’s got firsthand experience with Cantor’s aloofness. So do many other voters in VA-7, no doubt.

Compare Richard Lugar and Orrin Hatch. Both came to the Senate in the same year, and both were moderately conservative members of that body, at least by present standards. But in his 2012 re-election race, Hatch fought from day one, corralled key endorsements from Mark Levin, discouraged quality challengers like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, and managed to clear a very conservative convention and win his primary election handily. He didn’t remake himself or his voting record entirely, but he did play like he was 10 points behind.

Lugar, on the other hand, ran a terrible Senate campaign, beset by allegations that he’d failed even to maintain a proper residence in the state. He looked like he’d “gone Washington.” He lost…

I have yet to read anything suggesting that Cantor had a good home style. His staff is consistently described as aloof, and his constituent service is lacking. This is consistent with my experience. Anecdotes are not data, but after passage of the Affordable Care Act, I called his office with a question about what autism therapies for my son would now be covered (I lived in Cantor’s district for six years). I never heard back. This surprised me, as constituent questions rarely go unanswered. I never once saw Cantor, not at county fairs, not at school board meetings, and not in the parades that would sometimes march past our house (we lived on a major thoroughfare). This isn’t to say that Cantor never did these things, only that they weren’t frequent enough to register; he wasn’t the stereotypical Southern politician whose face showed up at every event.

Backing amnesty, even a limited amnesty like DREAM, was damaging but being seen as having “gone Washington” at a populist moment when voters are seething with contempt for D.C. is fatal. What’s interesting about Cantor, though, is that he wasn’t caught napping by his challenger the way Bob Bennett, Lugar, and now Thad Cochran were. All three of those men campaigned lightly early in their primaries because they didn’t take the threat from a primary seriously. It wasn’t just a matter of having a poor “home style”; they were lazy in not moving forcefully to squash their opponent before he built up momentum. Cantor was forceful. He spent millions on ads, attacked Brat as a closet liberal, and even tried to reposition himself as a stalwart opponent of immigration reform to guard his right flank. Didn’t matter. The takeaway is that, at least in a small race like a House district, parachuting into your home district a few months before the election and kitchen-sinking the guy running against you might not be enough. Voters have long memories. Which is another reason to be happy about Brat’s win: Other House Republicans watching this will conclude that they need to spend more of their time back home and less time in Washington.

Cantor’s farewell press conference has just started as I’m writing this. While we wait for news, here’s Rush Limbaugh wondering whether amnesty’s as dead as the conventional wisdom would have you believe. Scott Brown’s big upset was supposed to have killed ObamaCare in the Senate, after all. How’d that work out?