For “Establishment” Republicans, the good news is that their Senate candidate in North Carolina, House Speaker Thom Tillis, won yesterday’s GOP primary without a runoff, easing comfortably past the 40% victory threshold. Fiery “constitutional conservative” Greg Brannon was second with 29% of the vote, and Christian Right candidate Rev. Mark Harris trailing with 16%.
The bad news is that the victor emerges from the contest hard to distinguish from the extremists he defeated.
It’s not as though there was ever a great ideological distance between the candidates. Yes, Brannon is one of those conservatives who thinks the federal government should be confined to its original minimalist role; he was supported by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rand Paul (R-KY), both of whom campaigned for him in North Carolina. But Tillis boasted of his support for Jim DeMint’s “Cut, Cap, Balance” constitutional amendment that would permanently pare back federal spending and tie it to a fixed percentage of GDP.
Dr. Greg Brannon concedes defeat Tuesday night to Thom Tillis in Raleigh
Tillis was also able to parry Harris’ social conservative street cred (the Southern Baptist preacher was a leader in the successful drive to ban same-sex marriage in the state, and was endorsed by Mike Huckabee) with incessant statements of his own opposition to same-sex marriage, and boasted of achieving a restriction in abortion rights in North Carolina. He also came out for a “Personhood” Amendment (the linchpin for efforts to outlaw Plan B contraception and IUD devices as “abortifacients”) and was endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee.
All this positioning seemed prudent; even with his large financial advantage and high name ID, he won about the same percentage of the primary vote as did Texas “Establishment” icon David Dewhurst in his first Senate primary in 2012, before Ted Cruz dispatched him in a runoff. Tillis can thank his lucky stars his state’s primary victory threshold is 10 points lower.
Looking forward to November, it’s worth emphasizing that at a time when the behavior of the Republican-controlled state government remains controversial, Tillis has branded himself as the leader of a “conservative revolution” aimed at turning back the clock on many years of moderate leadership and policies in the state. This messaging may have ruled out any “move to the center” maneuvering by the new Republican nominee. .
The punctuation mark for the Speaker’s radicalized image may have come the day before the primary, when Kay Hagan’s campaign drew renewed attention to a 2011 video in which Tillis cooly lectured a Republican group on how to pit people with disabilities against people receiving other forms of public assistance, in what he called a “divide and conquer” strategy:
The video, which is sort of a nastier version of the Mitt Romney “47 percent” video, has the air of an instant classic, thanks to its unmistakable class and racial undertones. Unless some other conservative politician outdoes Tillis, the video will remain nationally and locally notorious for a long time to come, thanks to the especially devilish, manipulative nature of Tillis’ analysis of how to demonize public assistance recipients, a strategy he said he would pursue even if it killed him politically.
The New Republic’s Brian Beutler, calling it a “Bond-villainesque soliloquy,” explains:
Class warfare? Check. Racist dog whistle? Check. A belabored explication of the political utility of racist dog whistling? Check. An acknowledgment that this strategy must be deployed at strategic moments, because it can backfire? Check. A further acknowledgment that admitting to the strategy can be career ending? Check.
All in all, the assumption that Tillis won’t have the general election handicaps to overcome that Brannon or Harris might have suffered from is not as strong as it was when the primary contest began, particularly now that Tillis has attracted so much national attention for his own hammerheaded ideological stances.
Tillis’ potentially pyrrhic win last night wasn’t the only result in North Carolina that might give pause to the narrative of an ongoing Republican Establishment smackdown in the 2014 primaries. Maverick Republican Rep. Walter Jones — who became an outspoken opponent of the Iraq War, voted for Dodd-Frank, and refused to support John Boehner for re-election as speaker — overcame a challenge from Taylor Griffin, a classic Establishment conservative fresh from the Bush White House and K Street. Jones’ most prominent backer was Ron Paul. Meanwhile, a less controversial incumbent, Rep. Renee Ellmers, had a poor if winning performance against a virtually invisible opponent in what appears to be a “base” backlash against her support for immigration reform. This could make her more vulnerable than might have been thought to the abundantly funded Democratic nominee in her district, former American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken or self-funding former state commerce Keith Crisco (the winner in that primary was unresolved as of this writing).
In general, the North Carolina Republican primary served as a reminder that the the “Establishment v. Tea Party” primaries going on this year are a bit more complicated than advertised. It’s not always so easy to separate the sheep from the goats; Tea Party candidates are doing well so far in downballot races (this was the real story of the March 4 Texas primaries); and most of all, the Establishment could pay a real price for victory via ideological concessions to its alleged party rivals. And we have a long way to go until November.