Tillis Defeats Tea Party Challenger In North Carolina

North Carolina

As most analysts had expected, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis scored a victory in yesterday’s Republican primary to select the candidate who will take on Senator Kay Hagen in the fall, doing so with more than enough votes to avoid a runoff:

WASHINGTON — In a boost for establishment Republicans and their hopes to gain control of the Senate, Thom Tillis won the North Carolina primary on Tuesday, avoiding a potentially contentious runoff by capturing more than 40 percent of the vote.

Mr. Tillis, the State House speaker, will now be able to focus his campaign on Senator Kay Hagan, the first-term Democrat who polls suggest will be highly vulnerable in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most-watched and costliest Senate races.

Buoyed by a few million dollars in support from mainstream Republican groups, Mr. Tillis held an advantage from the start over his two biggest challengers, Greg Brannon, a libertarian-leaning physician, and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor. With all but 20 of the state’s 2,725 precincts reporting, Mr. Tillis had received 46 percent of the vote, while Mr. Brannon had 27 percent and Mr. Harris 18 percent, according to returns posted on the state elections website.

Conservative groups have already spent over $12 million attacking Ms. Hagan through television ads, an assault that has clearly had an impact on her standing. A New York Times poll last month showed that 44 percent of North Carolinians disapproved of her job performance — the same proportion that approved of her work.

Tuesday was the beginning of a busy spring primary season, with elections scheduled nearly every week over the next two months. Many of the Republican contests will feature a Tea Party-versus-establishment dynamic, which will offer insight into which faction is faring better with party loyalists.

Primaries were also held in Ohio, where Speaker John A. Boehner easily held off two Republican primary opponents, and in Indiana.

But it was North Carolina that attracted the most interest for both parties.

While Mr. Tillis is no moderate — he pushed through a conservative agenda in the Legislature — the North Carolina results represent a win for such Republican groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, both of which aired TV ads in the state in an effort to ensure Mr. Tillis did not have to face a potentially draining mid-July runoff. The groups, along with the Senate Republican leadership, were also concerned a runoff would give an opening to Mr. Brannon, who they feared could not beat Ms. Hagan.

In the final days of the primary, the race became something of a proxy war between high-profile Republicans. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, both offered late endorsements of Mr. Tillis, while Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky appeared Monday at a rally in Charlotte, N.C., for Mr. Brannon.

But it was Mr. Paul’s only trip to the state on behalf of Mr. Brannon. In addition to dividing the anti-establishment vote with Mr. Harris, Mr. Brannon was not able to win support from well-funded conservative groups, like the Club for Growth, that insurgent candidates often rely upon to defeat mainstream Republicans.

That lack of help was not only a letdown for Mr. Brannon, it was also a disappointment to Democrats, who were hoping that the Republican race would continue into July. A prolonged primary would have given them an opportunity to keep attacking Mr. Tillis, a process that both Ms. Hagan and Democratic groups have already begun.

CNN’s coverage of the outcome of the primary election also emphasizes the Tea Party/Establishment angle:

This election cycle, mainstream Republicans don’t want another sequel.

In North Carolina, Tillis won recent endorsements from two high-profile Republicans: 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 White House hopeful.

More importantly, while none of the candidates in the GOP primary, including Tillis, raised or spent a lot of money in the campaign, the state House speaker won the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, two outside groups that combined have spent millions this cycle to run ads in support of Tillis and other establishment picks that they feel are “electable” come November.

Last week, in what was described as a major buy, the pro-business Chamber launched a television commercial that described Tillis as “a bold conservative who balanced our budget and reduced regulations. A businessman who delivered tax relief.”

And Crossroads, the big-spending outside group co-founded and steered by Karl Rove, says it has spent nearly $2 million in support of Tillis. That spending dwarfed the money shelled out by outside conservative groups that backed Brannon.

“It was clear from the start that Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda, and tonight’s victory is the first step toward making that happen,” said American Crossroads President and CEO Steven Law.

Paul was quick to back Tillis.

“Now that the primary is over, it is time for our side to unite to defeat the Democrat who cast the deciding vote for Obamacare, Kay Hagan, in November. I endorse Thom Tillis and look forward to working with him in the Senate,” Paul wrote on Facebook.

And a top tea party leader who had backed Brannon sounded conciliatory.

“While we obviously aren’t happy with the outcome, we congratulate Speaker Tillis for his win,” said Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin. “The important thing now is to pick up a U.S. Senate seat that’s been in liberal hands for the last six years.

This is just the beginning of a string of primaries that will pit incumbents and candidates running for seats currently held by Democrats. Next week, we’ve got the GOP Primary in Nebraska, which I wrote about that. And on May 20th we’ve got the Kentucky primary between Mitch McConnell and Matt Bevin and the wide-open race for the Republican nomination in Georgia. By this time next month, then, we should have a very good idea how the Establishment v. Tea Party battle is shaping up.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    Sadly, Tillis is really a Tea Party conservative in all about name.

    Tillis was seen as the “establishment” candidate in this primary, but his record and his rhetoric are clear: He is no moderate, and could come across that way only when sitting next to Greg Brannon and Heather Grant.

    Among the stances and accomplishments of which he’s most proud: Denying federally funded Medicaid to a half-million North Carolinians; helping pass a discriminatory constitutional amendment that was instantly on shaky legal ground; passing one of the most voter-unfriendly laws in the nation; and cutting taxes by more than $2 billion while giving teachers not a penny in raises.

    His House passed a bill to let people carry guns in bars and another that put tough restrictions on legal abortions. He said at an Observer debate last month that climate change was not a fact, there should be no federal minimum wage and the Department of Education should be abolished.

    Some believe he was forced into some of those positions by political considerations. Whatever is in the depths of his heart, his resumé is undeniable.

    Read more here: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/05/06/4891885/next-up-for-tillis-a-political.html?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook#.U2pGIyjVROB#storylink=cpy

    Twenty years ago, this would be the record of a crackpot right winger.

    Now its mainstream Republicanism. How the Overton window has moved!

    Shout-out to Tillman: can North Carolina really elect the kind of heartless bastard who boasts of denying access to health care for a half a million of its citizens?

  2. gVOR08 says:

    It does appear the establishment is beating back the Tea Party. I’m not sure this is a good thing. The Tea Party is obnoxious, but it wasn’t the Tea Party or the evangelicals who gave us an unfunded Medicare Part D, the unending war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, the deregulation that allowed the ’08 financial crisis, or funded AGW denial. Those were all given to us by the Republican establishment. On balance, I think I’d rather have obviously crazy Republicans than Republicans who can appear moderate and sensible. Louis Gohmert is an ignorant, obnoxious whack job, but it’s Paul Ryan that’s a threat.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Thom Tillis may be the least crazy in a field of crazies but I’m sure in most states he would be considered a Tea Party candidate. I’m sure that Senator Kay Hagen will take advantage of his time as state speaker that brought 1,000s of people to the streets every Monday.

  4. @Ron Beasley:

    She may, but she’s going to have a tough fight on her hands. Things would have been a lot easier against Brannon, which is why Democrats had that covert campaign to attack Tillis from the right in the weeks before the primary.

  5. stonetools says:

    More on Tillis , from Brian Buetler:

    Whether North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis wins the Senate GOP primary tonight, or finds himself stuck in a run-off until July, he’ll be contending with this recently resurfaced video from 2011, in which he fuses all of the ugliest elements of conservative politics into one mustache-twiddling, Bond-villainesque soliloquy laying bare the GOP’s “divide and conquer” strategy to undermine the social safety net.

    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.’ And we’ve got to start having that serious discussion. It won’t happen next year. Wrong time. Because it’s going to be politically charged. One of the reasons why I may never run for another elected office is cause some of these things may just get me railroaded out of town. But in 2013 I honestly believe that we have to do it.

    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.

    The bolded part is a quote, and there’s video at the link.
    More Buetler analysis:

    He’s very clear-eyed about what he’s doing. His statement is an implicit admission that the road to building majority support for a conservative policy agenda runs through the exploitation of white racial resentment. Making a case out of “these people” who have many “babies” to foster and deepen their own dependence on government.

    A real charmer, this guy. Makes Jesse Helm look like a bleeding heart liberal.

  6. Tillman says:

    @stonetools: This is the state that elected Jesse Helms to five terms as Senator. You can figure it out. McCrory is taking more heat for the Medicaid fallout than Tillis is.

    I actually voted in the Republican primary for Brannon yesterday specifically because I don’t like Tillis. The legislature under him has undone so much progress. That Charlotte Observer excerpt doesn’t mention how they uncoupled charter schools from NC Board of Education oversight, a move even the charter schools didn’t like.

    My best hope is that Clay Aiken wins his runoff, and can somehow draw out people who don’t normally vote in midterms.

  7. @stonetools:

    Brian Beutler is opposed to a Republican? How shocking.

  8. Moosebreath says:

    As Kevin Drum points out, Tillis left very little room to the right for the Tea Party to run.

    “If Tillis is the best example you can find of an “establishment” candidate, then the establishment is well and truly toast. These days, the tea party is triumphant everywhere. The only thing that’s changed is its name. It’s now called the Republican Party.”

    @Doug Mataconis:

    A deep and insightful response on the specifics when a Republican is attacked? How shocking.

  9. stonetools says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yeah, but he backs up his opposition. He references a freakin’ video, FFS. Don’t buy his analysis ? Watch the video and read the transcript.
    What Buetler is doing isn’t really “opposition” if you define it as just objecting to a Tillis candidacy. What is he is doing is more like reporting. You know, the stuff Fox News doesn’t really do?

  10. M. Bouffant says:

    “While we obviously aren’t happy with the outcome, we congratulate Speaker Tillis for his win,” said Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin.

    This Jenny Beth Martin? Perhaps if the Tea Party Patriots had spent a few dollars more on their candidate & less on her salary she wouldn’t be so unhappy.