One Republican strategist’s take on what happened in Tuesday’s Senate primary in North Carolina: “The Tea Party got screwed.”
That’s because, although the primary was cast as the first major battle of the election season between the party’s establishment wing and the tea-party rebels it is trying to quash, it was hardly a sustained, well-conceived effort by the insurgents. “If I was the Tea Party,” the strategist says, “I would not want to make this my test case.”
State-house speaker Thom Tillis emerged victorious Tuesday evening, capturing over 45 percent of the vote and easily clearing the 40 percent threshold that would have sent him into a July run-off with the second-place finisher. Obstetrician Greg Brannon and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor, who ran to Tillis’s right, divided the tea-party vote and finished with 27 and 17 percent respectively.
Tillis will face Kay Hagan, one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents — her approval rating dropped to an all-time low of 33 percent in March — in November’s midterm election. Among Republicans, the seat is considered among their most promising pick-up opportunities, and one that the party must win if it is to retake the Senate majority.
Tillis and his establishment backers, who include John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Mitt Romney, succeeded on Tuesday in avoiding a real showdown with the Tea Party in a July run-off, where he would have faced second-place finisher Brannon one-on-one.
Outside groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce poured over $2 million into the race on Tillis’s behalf to avoid that scenario.
Had Tillis failed to surpass the 40 percent mark on Tuesday, it would have been a greater reflection of the establishment’s failure than of the Tea Party’s might. With its supporters divided between Brannon, who was endorsed by senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee as well as the tea-party group FreedomWorks, and Harris, who was endorsed by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and who early on won the support of social conservatives, some of the Tea Party’s major financial forces stayed out of the race altogether. Tea-party groups spent less than $200,000 on Brannon’s behalf and made no independent expenditures at all to support Harris. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which has endorsed nearly every insurgent Senate candidate, did not endorse a candidate in North Carolina. The Club for Growth, which has made endorsements in the Nebraska and Mississippi primaries, stayed out too. One result: Tillis outraised each of Brannon and Harris by a factor of three.
The Tea Party faced other obstacles, too. Though supporters touted Brannon as a candidate who could talk about constitutional issues with the verve and fluency of Ted Cruz, he did not prove to be a particularly effective campaigner or fundraiser. According to John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank in North Carolina, Brannon “punched below his weight class.”
There were other troubles, in the form of a court ruling that Brannon had misled investors in a failed start-up company, resulting in a six-figure settlement, and a slew of controversial statements made in radio appearances over the years. In them, Brannon said, among other things, that he doesn’t believe in public schools, that President Obama believes in a “socialist government,” and that the current political system is a precursor to the collectivism of Nazi Germany.
Tillis himself proved to be another obstacle. Though backed by establishment forces and, as a former management consultant, easily portrayed as a process-oriented tool of the party’s business interests, Tillis has some conservative bona fides.
Over the past two years, he’s been a key figure in a Republican revolution that has dragged North Carolina about 20 yards to the right, and he is not easily portrayed as somebody who is hostile to conservative ideas.
Tillis became state-house speaker in 2010 after helping Republicans reclaim a majority in the state house and senate for the first time in more than a century. Then, in 2012, North Carolina elected Republican Pat McCrory to the governorship; it had been nearly three decades since a Republican held that post.
Together, over the past two years, Tillis and McCrory have enacted a broad conservative agenda and pushed through some of the most ambitious legislative changes that any state has adopted in such a short period of time. The tax code got a rewrite, school vouchers were introduced, and an expansion of Medicaid was blocked. Tort reform, restrictions on abortion, and a voter-identification law were enacted. The moves so rankled Democrats that they began a weekly protest known as “Moral Mondays.” They garnered national attention as protesters were arrested week after week, prompting the editorial writers at the New York Times to declare the slew of legislative changes a “demolition derby.”
“Fundamentally,” says the Locke Foundation’s Hood, “arguing that Thom Tillis wasn’t conservative enough was a doomed effort.”
Tillis is viewed with suspicion by some conservatives, and by his tea-party opponents, for initially supporting the establishment of a state-based Obamacare exchange in North Carolina. (He now says he supports a full repeal of the law.) That’s something that Hagan’s campaign, which considered Tillis the toughest Republican candidate and sought to force him into a run-off, has already seized upon, sending flyers broadcasting the fact to Republican primary voters ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Hagan cruised to victory in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote over then-senator Elizabeth Dole. She was boosted by Obama’s presence at the top of the ticket and by the Democrats’ strength up and down the ballot. As she seeks a second term this year, she won’t have the same advantages, and the GOP’s establishment forces are pleased with their success in ensuring that, in their eyes as well as in hers, she has a more formidable opponent.
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.