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The GOP Got What It Wanted In North Carolina, But Its Problems with Right Wingers Are Far From Over

Carolina Business Review/YouTube

Thom Tillis was the Republican party's guy in North Carolina, and he won the Senate primary there last night with nearly 46 percent of a vote, comfortably avoiding the two-month runoff he'd have had to endure if he'd come in below 40 percent.

GOP operatives want reporters to believe that Tillis' candidacy was a controlled experiment, whose outcome proves the party has discovered a formula for vanquishing unsavory or undisciplined insurgent candidates backed by the Tea Party or other right wing groups. That the Republican civil war is over and the establishment has won.

And it's not entirely spin. There are remarkable differences between the party's approach to Senate primaries in 2014 and its lead-from-behind-then-faceplant approach in 2010 and 2012. They engaged the fight in North Carolina not just rhetorically, but with large sums of money, badly outmatching Tea Party-branded groups that are disorganized at best and right-wing fleecing operations at worst. And they coordinated with allies when necessary—both explicitly, and through the use of the sort of political smoke signals campaign finance laws frequently require.

All of that is to their credit. There is no sense denying it.

But the case isn't as open and shut as Republicans would like it to be. Even if you ignore the obvious differences between 2010 and 2014, and the fact that the establishment has defeated right wing candidates before—just ask Senator Tommy Thompson—there are several reasons to believe that getting someone like Thom Tillis nominated doesn't herald the end of the GOP's problem with its conservative base. It's just morphed into something different.

The most obvious reason is that Tillis isn't a Mike Castle-style Republican, and so conservative opposition to him is largely tribal. It's unclear what in his substantive record makes conservative activists believe he won't be a tribune for right wing causes, other than the fact that people like Mitt Romney wanted him to win the primary. And that's reflected in polls of actual voters, which had him winning not just among the GOP electorate but among Tea Party-identified voters as well.

If there's a controlled experiment here, it's the conservative movement's 2012 takeover of North Carolina, which was strategic and well-financed (in part by, yes, the Koch brothers), and turned the state into a laboratory of right wing policy. As state House Speaker, Tillis streamlined that agenda. That experiment proved it's possible to map the right's impossible national strategy on to a single, conservative-leaning state, and make huge gains. The question now is whether the politicians who thrive in such an environment can become credible state-wide candidates.

Thom Tillis is the guy who said this: "What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance. We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition, that needs help and that we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say, 'at some point you're on your own! We may end up taking care of those babies, but we're not taking care of you.'"

That was way back in 2011.

It's strange that a guy with Tillis' bona fides drew credible challengers in the first place. In another state, he easily could have played the kind of villain the national party set out to destroy. And though he defeated his opponents, they still served to drag a guy who already championed the conservative agenda further to the right. And that's not a well worn formula in swing states or national elections.

That doesn't mean Tillis won't become a senator. It just means the Republican party's conservative movement problem runs deeper than losing Senate primaries.