U.S. political analysts are saying that reform of the country's immigration laws this year is imperiled after the unexpected defeat of a key lawmaker in a Republican party primary election.
The majority leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Congressman Eric Cantor, had endorsed legislation that would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and eventually become citizens.
But he was defeated Tuesday night by a little-known challenger, college professor David Brat, who claimed that Cantor's immigration views amounted to "amnesty" for lawbreakers who entered the country illegally. Brat declared himself "more conservative than Eric Cantor across the board," even though Cantor is viewed in Washington as a staunch conservative opponent of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Cantor outspent Brat by 50 to 1 in the Republican party election in the mid-Atlantic state of Virginia, but Brat said that did not matter.
"The reason we won this campaign, if there's just one reason, and that's because dollars do not vote, you do. This campaign was about just basic American values and virtues right from the beginning. And the basic premise is power belongs to the people and that's what we're going to do," said Brat.
Conservative Republicans in the U.S. have attacked immigration reforms supported by Obama, a Democrat. The Senate last year approved a comprehensive immigration overhaul, but the proposal has languished in the House.
There have been some signs, however, that the legislation might be voted on in the next two months. But analysts now say that with Cantor's defeat, conservative lawmakers almost certainly will be emboldened in opposing changes to grant citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants already living in the country illegally.
The debate over immigration policy in the U.S. is contentious. Obama's 2012 re-election was partly attributed to the growing strength of Hispanic voters who favored him in large numbers, and their wide support for Democrats could also be decisive in future national elections.
But much of the conservative wing of the Republican party has demanded that the U.S. first secure its border with Mexico to block immigrants from entering the U.S. before broader immigration policy changes are considered.
Cantor called his loss "disappointing," but stressed that he believes "there's opportunity around the next corner for all of us."
The 51-year-old Cantor was first elected to the House in 2000 from a district that includes Richmond, Virginia's capital city. He rose quickly through the Republican leadership ranks, and earned support among Tea Party lawmakers for his demands to cut government spending.
Cantor was considered likely to replace House Speaker John Boehner after the November congressional elections.
Brat's Democratic opponent in November is Jack Trammell, another first-time candidate who is also a professor at the same college as Brat. Brat is a favorite to win in the heavily Republican district.