The political primary season kicked into high gear on Tuesday with the early returns favoring establishment figures over tea party challengers.
In the first big race to determine the tea party’s influence within the Republican Party, Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s House speaker, won the state’s GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. The victory means Tillis will get to take on incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the most vulnerable Democrats being targeted by Republicans, as the GOP tries to win control of the Senate.
Tillis, who captured 46 percent of the vote, had the backing of major Republican establishment groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, an organization founded by former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove. Tillis’ two main challengers, Greg Brannon (27 percent), an obstetrician and a tea party favorite, and Mark Harris (18 percent), a Baptist pastor and darling of most social conservatives, likely split the anti-establishment vote.
Tillis avoided a runoff by winning more than 40 percent of the vote. During his victory speech Tuesday night, he went right after Hagan, who had only a 33 percent approval rating in March.
“Our republic was founded on separate but equal branches, a system with checks and balances,” Tillis told supporters in Charlotte. “But Kay Hagan hasn’t provided any balance whatsoever when it’s come to having a check on [President] Obama. She’s done nothing but abandoned her post for the last six years.”
Tillis, who hopes to become one the six new senators the GOP needs this fall in order to win the Senate majority, likely will spend the bulk of his campaign tying Hagan to Obama and Obamacare. Both the president and his signature healthcare law remain unpopular in the Tar Heel State. On Tuesday night, Tillis said, “If we want to change the mess of Obamacare, we have to change our senator.”
Reacting to Tuesday’s North Carolina primary, the Tea Party Patriots released a statement, saying, “While Greg Brannon ran a great campaign, unfortunately you can’t win them all.”
National storylines for the Tillis victory focus on how the outcome in North Carolina may foreshadow a tough primary season for the tea party crowd. In the coming weeks, the GOP establishment is taking on the tea party in Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi.
The North Carolina primary battle highlighted the establishment wing’s biggest advantage: money. After a series of tea party upsets in 2010 and 2012, Republican incumbents and the groups backing them are opening up their campaign war chests to ensure that recent history doesn’t repeat in 2014.
Tillis, who received the backing of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, spent more than twice the money of his opposition. With the help of outside groups like the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, $4.7 million went toward the Tillis campaign. Brannon and Harris and the groups supporting them spent less than $2 million.
But tea party groups likely will dispute claims that the North Carolina result is a key test case. That is because many of the major tea party organizations largely sat out the race. Brannon and Harris divided many tea party supporters, with evangelical conservatives backing Harris and fiscal conservatives going for Brannon. National tea party groups, such as the Senate Conservative Fund and the Club For Growth, refrained from making endorsements in the North Carolina race. Tea party groups spent less than $200,000 on Brannon’s campaign.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite and a potential presidential candidate, did campaign for Brannon in North Carolina, visiting the state the day before the election. But Paul quickly endorsed Tillis after he won Tuesday’s primary.
Democrats had hoped to avoid Tillis in the general election, likely seeing him as the most difficult challenger. Hagan’s campaign distributed mailers before the primary trying to convince voters that Tillis was too liberal. But Tillis has gained some conservative credentials since becoming speaker of the state House in 2010.
After Republicans claimed the majority in the state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years, Tillis’ speakership has been marked by the passage of conservative priorities such as pro-life measures and school vouchers. The recent legislative track record in North Carolina has led to Democrats staging weekly protests at the state capitol.
Nationwide on Tuesday there were few primary surprises: incumbents won in Indiana and Ohio, including Boehner. The Ohio Republican easily dispatched two tea party challengers and likely will win a 13th term in Congress this fall. Then he will face another vote next January when his colleagues decide if he gets a third term as speaker.
Back in North Carolina, Clay Aiken, the former American Idol singer, held onto a slim lead for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers this fall. That district is a heavily Republican one, but Aiken may prove this fall that being a celebrity in this celebrity-obsessed culture may be the best weapon against the power of the incumbent.