Last week North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis escaped a runoff by earning 46 percent of the vote — six points above the threshold — in an eight-way primary race for the right to face down incumbent U.S. Senator Kay Hagan this November.
The post-victory squawking among Washington's smart set was that the GOP establishment has vanquished the Tea Party, that the Karl Rove and Mitt Romney wing of the party is ascendant once more. But this analysis, like most generated inside the Beltway, fundamentally misses the mark. For Republicans, it isn’t just wrong, but counterproductive.
Take the cocktail circuit wisdom from Michael Gerson, a long-time GOP establishment hand, former George W. Bush speechwriter, and Washington Post columnist. In a Sunday piece, Gerson recognized that Tillis’s victory gave the North Carolina GOP a nominee with a rock-solid conservative record as House Speaker. But he spent an inordinate amount of time trashing Greg Brannon, the second-place finisher. Brannon, an obstetrician with degrees from Southern Cal and the University of Chicago Medical School, posted 27 percent in a statewide Republican primary in his first run for office despite a shortage of campaign funds and a lack of name recognition.
You’d think that would be considered a relatively decent showing. Maybe Brannon’s a guy to watch. Perhaps the GOP would find him worth cultivating for a future election — for Congress, let’s say — while at the same time ensuring that he joins Team Tillis. Brannon’s 27 percent, plus the 17 percent that Baptist minister Mark Harris received, not to mention the 11 percent the five other candidates drew, make for a majority of the GOP vote — and Tillis will need them all in November. He needs to unite the conservative and Republican clans if he’s going to knock off the vulnerable-but-not-hopeless Hagan. Savvy pols know this: Sen. Rand Paul, who campaigned for Brannon and made a last-minute appearance in Charlotte on his behalf, immediately endorsed Tillis on primary night.
And yet Gerson, who clearly wants Tillis to defeat Hagan, didn’t get the memo. “Tillis’ main Tea Party opponent, Greg Brannon, possessed no apparent qualifications for public office, except a sense of divine calling and a remarkable facility for quoting the Constitution,” he wrote.
It’s worth questioning why he felt the need to bash Brannon in such a manner.
Brannon had negatives, it’s true. He found himself on the wrong side of a jury verdict in a trial over a business dispute during the campaign, something he should have settled before it constituted a PR mess for him. And he was given to making bombastic statements about eliminating the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Marxist nature of modern public education, the debilitating effects of welfare payments, and the frequent historical atrocities of central planning — defensible statements that resonated with Tea Party and base voters but that allowed the political and media class to paint him as unelectable.
The funny thing, though, is despite all this Brannon still led Hagan in the RealClearPolitics average of head-to-head polls in late April, and his performance against her was quite similar to that of Tillis. One might suspect that voters were willing to forgive the first-time candidate his mistakes and more than happy to support for him over Hagan.
But in the words of the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, Brannon is a “flaky character.”
What of the 27 percent of North Carolina Republicans who voted for him, then? Are they “flaky characters” as well? Are they rubes and idiots, fools or lunatics, as Gerson seems to suggest?
Should those voters take their admonishment from their political betters in Washington and just fall in line? Does the Georgetown-party set have any fear that trashing a full quarter of North Carolina’s Republican voters might make them less likely to come aboard with Tillis?
Tillis’ record, after all, doesn’t look like that of a RINO. He’s the man largely responsible for passing a suite of policy reforms in North Carolina that turned that state’s Left into shrieking moonbats, spending their Mondays at the capitol in protest — of charter school expansions, tax reform, the end of state funding for Planned Parenthood, a voter ID law, a move toward eliminating state income taxes, among others. He’s going to be pilloried in the general election for that record, and for having made the suggestion that Republicans should employ a “divide and conquer” strategy of setting different classes of recipients of public assistance against each other in an effort to build support for shrinking the welfare state.
That Tillis should have been cast as a RINO in the primary might speak to criticisms of the Washington-based Tea Party groups forming an establishment of their own, but he was widely considered the “squish” of the three main contenders. Even Gerson had to admit this is a major shift in what constitutes mainstream conservatism.
The lesson of the Tillis victory isn’t that Karl Rove is back, though the media might want it to be. The lesson is that the GOP establishment has to find hard-core conservatives even in swing states if it wants to win its own nomination. Thom Tillis isn’t Mike Castle, and he isn’t Charlie Crist. Romney might have endorsed him, but while the 2012 presidential nominee — who won in North Carolina — came out in favor of a minimum wage increase, Tillis has said he’s not sure there should even be a minimum wage.
The Romney endorsement despite that difference is instructive. It’s worth celebrating that the establishment has had to move to the right to reach the party’s voters, and the move should be put forth as an advertisement for Republican unity. Instead, the focus more often seems to be on eviscerating insurgent candidates and alienating their voters with insults.
The Gersons and Rubins might learn better manners. After all, the establishment might have won the nomination in North Carolina, but without all those rubes and loons who didn’t pull a lever for Tillis in the primary, Hagan will survive.
If she does, it won’t be the Tea Party’s fault. It will be Tillis’s establishment friends who’ll get the blame. They should learn of the comparative properties of honey as opposed to their vinegary stock in trade.