The first battle of the larger establishment versus tea party war is taking place next Tuesday in North Carolina, where Republicans will choose their nominee to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). There's little dispute that state House Speaker Thom Tillis -- the establishment favorite -- will finish first, but he's far from guaranteed of hitting the 40 percent necessary to avoid a runoff.
-- Outside GOP establishment groups, like the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, rarely played in primaries before -- but now they're going all out simply to ensure Tillis locks down the nomination early. Otherwise, the race could turn into a one-on-one challenge against a more conservative challenger against either obstetrician Greg Brannon or pastor Mark Harris, which would be costly in both financial and political terms. The Chamber spent about $1 million on a last-week ad buy for Tillis, while Crossroads pumped in $1.6 million for Tillis over the last month.
-- The establishment's strategy in North Carolina is merely a preview of what's to come in more contentious primaries later over the next month. The Chamber has been aggressively hitting tea party challengers in primaries across the country, including in Idaho (to help Rep. Mike Simpson), Kentucky (boosting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), and in Mississippi (aiding Sen. Thad Cochran). All those races, thanks to one-on-one contests, have been more contentious than Tillis's relatively low-key primary. But in all the contested primaries, the momentum is with the establishment candidates. A clean sweep would validate McConnell's pledge in March to "crush" conservative outside groups.
-- North Carolina should be the easiest test. In the primary, the underfunded Harris or Brannon didn't receive much outside help in the primary's final stretch, despite Sen. Rand Paul's last minute campaign stop for Brannon next Monday. With Brannon much closer to third place than to the lead, it seems a little too late to really impact the race. But it could gin up grassroots turnout enough to prevent Tillis from hitting the magic 40% number.
Tomorrow's National Journal cover story will detail the establishment's new coordinated strategy to elect their own and prevent the next Christine O'Donnell or Todd Akin from emerging. And if they succeed in North Carolina, their nominee will be Mr. Establishment himself -- partner at a top consulting firm turned legislative ladder-climber.