With their misleading talk about passing an immigration bill this year, Republican leaders are partly to blame for House majority leader Eric Cantor’s defeat at the hands of an unknown college professor.

House speaker John Boehner was a particular offender as he, from time to time this year, talked vaguely of enacting an immigration reform bill. What that legislation might contain, he didn’t say. But this allowed opponents of any immigration measure to shout “amnesty,” as if Boehner wanted to give legal status quickly to illegal immigrants in this country in 2014.

That wasn’t Boehner’s intent, but he declined to clarify what he meant. To put it mildly, he is a poor communicator in a position that requires lots of communicating. And so foes of immigration reform–especially the talk radio crowd–felt free to put words in his word. And they did, and in Cantor’s mouth too.

The immigrant issue hadn’t worked in most Republican primary races this election cycle. But it caught on in Cantor’s suburban and rural district. Polls showed he would win going away, but pre-primary surveys are notoriously inaccurate. Nor does money always prevail: Cantor spent $5 million, challenger David Brat less than $200,000. But Brat’s message offset Cantor’s dough.

To critics of immigration reform, the defeat of Cantor reflects a growing wave of opposition to congressional action on immigration, particularly anything resembling the Senate-passed measure that offers a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants here.

But if a wave exists, there was no evidence of it in the Republican primary in South Carolina won by Senator Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill and an outspoken advocate of letting illegals stay in the U.S. Graham got four or five times as many votes as Brat.

True, there were other factors in the Graham race. He took the primary seriously and started early to line up allies and build a case for his re-nomination. Cantor had no reason to create primary juggernaut early. Brat became a threat only late in the campaign. Graham had six weak primary opponents and no one emerged from the pack.

Still, if an anti-immigration reform surge is cresting nationally, Graham would have been its most vulnerable target and potential victim. His overwhelming victory–he avoided a runoff by collecting more than 50 percent of the vote–in a conservative state undermines the notion of a tide.

What Republicans have is a nasty division on immigration. And it’s tied to grassroots dissatisfaction with the Republican leadership in Congress.

Boehner didn’t help by trying to placate both sides. Whatever his preference, there was little chance Republicans would approve any immigration legislation at all. And he should have stopped pretending otherwise.

After he spoke weeks ago about passing a bill, I inquired about what he had in mind. I was told by his aides there might be a “small” bill. Since the House Judiciary Committee had reported out five pieces of immigration legislation, I asked if it might be one of those parts. “Oh, no.” I was told, “nothing that big.”

Meanwhile, the anti-reformers were shouting, “Amnesty.” And now it has claimed a victim.

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