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After an April phone call between President Barack Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), two conflicting stories of their conversation emerged.

According to the Obama administration, the call was pleasant: The president wished Mr. Cantor a happy Passover and the two briefly discussed immigration reform.

For Cantor’s camp, however, the call was an overreach on the part of Obama, who had just issued stern words about the GOP’s inaction on immigration. “The president called me hours after he issued a partisan statement which attacked me and my fellow House Republicans and which indicated no sincere desire to work together,” Cantor said in a statement after the call. “After five years, President Obama still has not learned how to effectively work with Congress to get things done.”

It was confusing.

But one thing about the bizarre turn of events was clear: Cantor, who is poised to be the next Speaker of the House, was not going to be viewed as bowing to the Democrats on the immigration debate.

Dave Brat, Cantor’s Republican primary challenger, may well be the cause of Cantor’s pushback on the issue.

The libertarian-minded Brat, it seems, has tapped into populist sentiment among a number of Republicans in Virginia’s 7th district, which primarily consists of conservative Richmond suburbs. Brat earns cheers from audiences across the district when he shares his Tea Party-inspired campaign platform of empowering small business, attacking what he sees as Cantor’s big-business agenda, and emphasis on his view of the Constitution and the “rule of law.”

Brat appears to have peeled some Republican voters from Cantor, who won a primary in 2012 with nearly 80 percent of the vote. On May 10, Tea Party activists booed and heckled Rep. Cantor as he tried to defend his record at his own district’s Republican convention.

Brat is hoping that his platform — featuring his staunch resistance to immigration reform, which he often calls “amnesty” — speaks to those Republicans who booed Cantor at the convention.

“Why does big business want amnesty? Why does The Chamber [of Commerce] want amnesty? Because it’s cheap labor,” Brat told a friendly crowd in Henrico, VA. “Big business gets cheap labor and what do you get?” Brat continued.

“The shaft!” an overzealous audience member screamed.

Brat, a professor of economics and ethics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA, then turned to his area of expertise: “Who’s going to pay for the unintended costs that’s going to come with amnesty? Who’s going to pay for the education, Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid? Is big business going to pay those bills, or are you? You’re going to pay those bills,” he said.

In other words, Brat seemed to suggest, immigrants are lazy and will inevitably end up on government assistance. Leaving aside the apparent xenophobia and questionable economics, there is significant irony in Brat making immigration an issue in the race.

For starters, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans may talk about passing immigration reform, but have taken no action on the issue. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) will not bring the already passed Senate immigration bill to a vote on the House floor until he has majority support from his own party — which he does not have.

Furthermore, in an op-ed published in Roll Call on Wednesday, Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo offered an impassioned plea for Congress to act on immigration reform. “We need to make the 11 million people who are here illegally obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows,” Russo argued.

While Russo stopped short of calling for “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, it’s clear the co-founder of one of the largest Tea Party groups in the United States now backs some pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

With at least some elements of the Tea Party lining up more closely with the Republican “establishment” on the immigration issue, why does a candidate like Brat continue to hammer an incumbent like Cantor? Perhaps because it’s an issue he can use to seem further right than the Majority Leader — a common campaign tactic of Tea Party candidates.

Photo: Republican Conference via Flickr

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