In a field of eight primary candidates, Tillis won without a runoff, turning back his main challengers, obstetrician Greg Brannon — backed by tea party icon Rand Paul — and Baptist minister Mark Harris — supported by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In contrast, Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, had the backing of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, along with funding by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, the super political action committee co-founded by Karl Rove, a GOP strategist pushing “mainstream” candidates.
Now, Tillis will face off against sitting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, considered one of the more vulnerable Democrats in the battle for control of the Senate this year. One of the biggest issues is the national health care law — “Obamacare” — which is as highly unpopular in North Carolina as it is in Georgia.
The theme of news reporting on the North Carolina outcome has been the defeat of tea party-backed candidates. But the real story is while the tea party has lost elections, it has won the philosophical battle within the Republican Party to a large extent. As Theda Skocpol, Harvard political scientist and co-author of “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” told a reporter: “Tea party candidates are going to lose the nominations but win the policy stands.”
The party “remains enthralled to these people,” Skocpol said.
In order to fend off tea party challenges, Republican incumbents and mainstream candidates have adopted tea party positions on some key issues. Example: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, facing fierce tea party opposition, showed up at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year brandishing a rifle. In the North Carolina race, Tillis emphasized his alignment with tea party opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Incidentally, McConnell backed Tillis in his race.
Another major factor influencing both establishment-type candidates and Republican voters is the electability of candidates, thanks to the well-publicized foot-in-the-mouth problems of some tea party candidates in the past. Such problems cost Republicans a bunch of Senate seats and probable control of the chamber in recent election cycles.
“We squandered, collectively, five Senate seats over the last two cycles because we had fundamentally unelectable candidates,” Rob Engstrom, national political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told a Tampa newspaper last week as the chamber pumped big money into the Tillis campaign.
That kind of thinking is reflected in Georgia, where two establishment types — Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue — lead the GOP field in the Senate primary race.
It boils down to tea party forces losing the battle to nominate candidates but winning the war on moving Republican candidates to the right. Therefore, it makes sense for tea party voters to support GOP nominees in November and not sit out the election or opt for third party candidates.