Electing Mr. Establishment

Thom Tillis (R) North Carolina during an interview at Roll Call in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
May 1, 2014, 7:38 a.m.

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.

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