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UPDATE: Apparently, Cantor had plenty of reason to be worried. Shortly after 8pm EST, the Associated Press called Tuesday’s primary for Brat.

When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) faces college professor David Brat in Tuesday’s Republican primary, the results will widely be viewed as a signal of how dangerous immigration politics can be for Republican candidates.

Cantor is almost certain to win Tuesday’s primary, given his superior name recognition and overwhelming financial advantage. But the Majority Leader is taking Brat’s challenge seriously. Brat has focused his campaign on immigration-based attacks — frequently blasting Cantor for “working in cahoots” with Democrats in an “amnesty drive” — and Cantor is clearly worried that the attacks could stick.

Although he often speaks publicly of the need to reform the system, Cantor has been sending out strongly anti-immigration direct mail in his district, boasting that “Conservative Republican Eric Cantor is stopping the Obama-Reid plan to give illegal aliens amnesty,” and proudly quoting an article that labels Cantor as the “the No. 1 guy standing between the American people and immigration reform.”

Cantor’s actions have matched his advertising; he has led the efforts to block even the most politically innocuous reforms from reaching the House floor for a vote.

There’s a very real reason to question what Cantor is afraid of, however. Although conservatives and pundits alike frequently warn that immigration reform is political suicide for Republican candidates, polling data does not support their concerns. The latest such survey, released on Election Day by the Public Religion Research Institute, exposes the futility of the GOP’s race to the right on the issue.

According to the poll, a 51 percent majority of self-identified Republicans support establishing a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. Furthermore, the poll makes it clear that Cantor and his fellow Republicans should not expect an electoral boost from blocking reform measures. In fact, the opposite holds true:

Even among Republican voters, opposing immigration reform carries more political risk than benefit. Nearly half (46 percent) of Republican voters say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who opposes immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, while 21 percent say they would be more likely to support such a candidate. Three in ten (30 percent) Republican voters say it would not make a difference to their vote either way.

Granted, Cantor’s district in the Richmond suburbs is extremely conservative. But the available polling of the race does not suggest that its right-leaning voters make Cantor more vulnerable to immigration attacks. According to a June 6 survey from GOP pollster Vox Populi, although a vast majority of Republican primary voters oppose a path to citizenship, just 9 percent rated immigration as the most important issue to them. That leaves immigration in third place behind government spending and debt (30 percent) and jobs and the economy (22 percent). In other words, Cantor does not stand to gain very much from his nativist-themed campaign.

His efforts could come with costs, though. Democrats have repeatedly warned that time is running out for House Republicans to act on immigration reform. If no progress is made by the end of the summer, then President Obama could choose to deal with the problem through executive action — resulting in more liberal reforms than Republicans would support, and exacerbating the GOP’s already serious problems with Hispanic voters.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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