Ramesh Ponnuru raises a question that is being bandied about a lot today:

It is easy enough to attribute his defeat to the sentiment among conservatives that Cantor is not sufficiently hostile to an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and that the Republican establishment is too squishy: too willing to raise the debt ceiling, vote for bank bailouts, and so on.

But then why did Senator Lindsey Graham, who vocally championed the immigration bill while Cantor distanced himself from it, win walking away in conservative South Carolina? Why did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is just as much an establishment figure as Cantor, and more favorable to the immigration bill, thump his primary opponent a few weeks ago?

The answer to this is simple. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham ran in statewide elections, not in heavily Republican districts within states. The ideology of Republicans in states like Virginia, South Carolina, and Kentucky varies a lot by region. The folks in Appalachian coal-mining territory are quite different from the folks living off government contracts in Alexandria or raising racehorses near Louisville. The retirees around Myrtle Beach are less socially conservative than the folks living in the rest of South Carolina. Eric Cantor lost because his Republican constituents are very conservative and because only the most pissed off people turned out to vote.

Trying to spin this as not about immigration might be in some people’s interests, but it isn’t true. The xenophobes were motivated and they turned out.

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