Republican Establishment Sweeps Tea Party in First Round of Primaries

American Crossroads plays pivotal role in locking up nomination for Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

Thom Tillis (R) North Carolina during an interview at Roll Call in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
May 6, 2014, 6:50 p.m.

North Car­o­lina House Speak­er Thom Tillis won the Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate nom­in­a­tion in the Tar Heel State on Tues­day even­ing, com­fort­ably sur­pass­ing the 40 per­cent threshold to win the nom­in­a­tion. His vic­tory rat­i­fies the ag­gress­ive strategy ad­op­ted by es­tab­lish­ment-ori­ented out­side groups, led by Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, to spend mil­lions on be­half of favored can­did­ates and at­tack their rivals when ne­ces­sary.

North Car­o­lina was the open­ing battle­ground in the fight between the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s two main fac­tions, and it’s a sign the es­tab­lish­ment’s no-holds-barred strategy is pay­ing off. Amer­ic­an Cross­roads spent $1.6 mil­lion on be­half of Tillis, sig­ni­fic­antly more than the re­sources of Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers Greg Bran­non and Mark Har­ris. They aired three ads, which each touted Tillis’s con­ser­vat­ive re­cord and re­but­ted Demo­crat­ic at­tacks against him.

The goal was simple: In­crease Tillis’s low name iden­ti­fic­a­tion, know­ing his op­pon­ents wouldn’t have the re­sources to fight back. In Janu­ary, the group com­mis­sioned a sur­vey from vet­er­an GOP poll­ster Jan van Lo­huizen show­ing Tillis only tal­ly­ing 16 per­cent in the crowded field, with 60 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­an voters un­sure of their choice. Just over one-quarter of North Car­o­lina GOP voters were fa­mil­i­ar with Tillis. But in the middle of their ad­vert­ising blitz in late April, an­oth­er poll com­mis­sioned by Cross­roads and con­duc­ted by van Lo­huizen found Tillis’s name iden­ti­fic­a­tion had shot up to 66 per­cent, with him tal­ly­ing 38 per­cent of the primary vote. That same poll showed only about one-third of voters fa­mil­i­ar with Bran­non and Har­ris.

Their strategy was two­fold: Spend early to avoid a fin­an­cially costly run­off that could wound Tillis for the gen­er­al elec­tion and be­gin to make the case against em­battled Demo­crat­ic Sen. Kay Hagan. It worked, with Tillis win­ning well over 40 per­cent across the board, in most North Car­o­lina counties.

“The stakes were pretty high for us to get him there,” Amer­ic­an Cross­roads Polit­ic­al Dir­ect­or Carl Forti said. “We may have had to spend sig­ni­fic­antly more to get [Tillis] through a run­off, and that’s money that’s not go­ing to oth­er im­port­ant races.” 

The Karl Rove-aligned su­per PAC took heat last year from con­ser­vat­ives for an­noun­cing the form­a­tion of the Con­ser­vat­ive Vic­tory Pro­ject, an ef­fort de­signed to pre­vent less-elect­able can­did­ates from win­ning primar­ies. But with con­sid­er­ably less fan­fare, the group achieved the same res­ults by em­ploy­ing a sim­il­ar strategy to boost Tillis. Cross­roads of­fi­cials said that it’s likely they will get in­volved in ad­di­tion­al primar­ies, giv­en the suc­cess­ful out­come in North Car­o­lina.

Mean­while, the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, which spent over $1 mil­lion in ads back­ing Tillis, also saw two oth­er en­dorsed can­did­ates pre­vail in con­tested primar­ies — Rep. Dav­id Joyce in Ohio and North Car­o­lina con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Dav­id Rouzer. The pro-busi­ness lobby at­tacked Joyce and Rouzer’s con­ser­vat­ive primary chal­lengers as sleazy “tri­al law­yers” in ads, be­fore they could catch any mo­mentum. House Speak­er John Boehner also com­fort­ably pre­vailed in his primary, win­ning 69 per­cent of the vote.

The es­tab­lish­ment is also gain­ing mo­mentum in the run-up to the next wave of con­gres­sion­al primar­ies in Neb­raska (May 13); Geor­gia, Idaho, and Ken­tucky (May 20); and Iowa and Mis­sis­sippi (June 3). Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is ex­pec­ted to eas­ily pre­vail against tea-party chal­lenger Matt Bev­in, des­pite out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups’ in­volve­ment in sup­port of Bev­in. In a sign of early ex­uber­ance, Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee spokes­man Ja­han Wil­cox tweeted “next stop is that fraud Matt Bev­in!” after the As­so­ci­ated Press called the race for Tillis.

Mean­while, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho is now favored to fend off a chal­lenge from Club for Growth-backed at­tor­ney Bry­an Smith. Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, the can­did­ate favored by Iowa GOP Gov. Terry Bran­stad, is win­ning sup­port from es­tab­lish­ment al­lies (Mitt Rom­ney) and tea-party fa­vor­ites (Sarah Pal­in) alike. In Geor­gia, the weak­est Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates are fad­ing in the primary, mak­ing it more likely Re­pub­lic­ans will nom­in­ate a strong op­pon­ent against Demo­crat Michelle Nunn.

The es­tab­lish­ment’s biggest test will come in Mis­sis­sippi, where Sen. Thad Co­chran is re­ly­ing on al­lies aligned with former Mis­sis­sippi Gov. Haley Bar­bour to fend off a ser­i­ous chal­lenge from state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is sup­por­ted by lead­ing out­side con­ser­vat­ive groups.

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