In the wake of Rep. Eric Cantor's stunning primary defeat Tuesday night, many conservatives have rushed to declare the outcome a referendum on Republican efforts to pursue immigration reform, a key wedge issue in the race. But tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul isn't buying it.
In a teleconference with Grover Norquist, a conservative champion of immigration reform, Paul told reporters Wednesday he wouldn't back off his position on the issue.
"I still am for it," Paul said. "I say everywhere I go that I am for immigration reform."
He argued that Cantor's loss to a little-known conservative economics professor was the result of the majority leader finding himself on the wrong side of many issues important to the grassroots, including the debt ceiling, the NSA spying program, and "corporate welfare."
Paul also pointed to the South Carolina primary victory Tuesday night for Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, as evidence that immigration "maybe isn't the paramount issue."
Paul encouraged conservatives to support immigration reform because "if we do nothing, the status quo continues," though he also recognized that "there's an entrenched group that won't for any" reforms.
"But there's also a middle group, where I would consider myself," Paul said, adding that he believes the term "amnesty" — a favorite talking point on the right — "is a word that's kind of trapped us" by confusing the national debate.
Paul's favored approach to reform differs from the immigration bill that passed the Senate last year, which he voted against. Rather than giving the Obama administration the authority to determine if the border between the U.S. and Mexico is secure — thus triggering the rest of the reforms aimed at helping undocumented immigrants find a path to legal residency — Paul supports giving Congress the ability to vote every year on whether needs are being met at the border.
The emphasis on border security is meant to appeal to conservatives who rejected last year's Senate bill because it gave the Obama administration too much power.
"Frankly, no administration has been trustworthy on the border security issue," a senior adviser to Paul told BuzzFeed before the teleconference. "That's why people are skeptical of immigration reform. In order for conservatives to accept the fact there might be able to be immigration reform, this issue must be handled."
The adviser added, "Elections are almost never a referendum on one issue; they are a referendum on the people on the ballot."
But many on the right remain skeptical of Paul's immigration rhetoric. Brent Bozell, the founder of the conservative group ForAmerica, warned Tuesday night that Paul would do well to distance himself from Norquist's reform agenda.
"The sound you just heard was the death knell of the immigration reform within the establishment of the Republican Party. It's kryptonite," Bozell said. "Look, there's a constructive way to have a discussion about immigration, but when you send signals that you're willing to go along with amnesty, the public is adamant in their response and they will throw you out of office."
And when the teleconference was announced Tuesday, the right-wing website Breitbart posted a story that called Paul's position a "lurch to the left."
This article has been updated to include comments made by Paul.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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