North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary was supposed to be, in the words of candidate Mark Harris, “a battle for the hearts and soul of the North Carolina GOP,” and maybe even the national party.
It was to be a tea party vs. establishment vs. evangelical brawl, and it drew national support along those very lines. The GOP’s possible White House hopefuls for 2016 picked their Tar Heel favorites in sort of a proxy battle.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed House Speaker Thom Tillis, the business/establishment favorite. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul championed fellow tea party libertarian Greg Brannon. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stumped for his fellow Baptist minister, Mark Harris. Candidate Heather Grant has participated in the debates.
But with voters going to the polls Tuesday, the expected ideological smackdown has fizzled.
The three televised debates more often sounded like a conservative gospel quartet than a battle for the party’s soul; the lack of money for some campaigns precluded insider vs. outsider wars on TV, and much of the national party establishment has lined up behind Tillis.
The two major outsider candidates, Brannon, a Cary physician, and Harris, a Charlotte minister, had a difficult time gaining traction.
“You really had half of the primary that never developed,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist for former Sen. Jesse Helms and others. “The Harris-Brannon part just never got the plane off the runway.”
When the polls close Tuesday night, Tillis will need 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher on July 15. If he falls short, his remaining challenger could find new life, and new money. Polling suggests that Tillis has been surging in recent days, making a runoff seem less likely.
Even as the GOP has largely avoided a divisive ideological battle, the Senate primary has provided a microcosm of the national GOP debate.
In Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi, tea party candidates who attempted to upend those backed by the establishment are losing ground in Republican primaries. That’s a change from 2010, when the tea party was credited with helping elect 87 Republican freshmen and giving the party, which argues for limited government, control of the U.S. House.
But one of the lessons of the past several elections was that, while the tea party has become a critical part of the GOP coalition, the Republican Party could lose Senate races if it nominated unseasoned or unelectable tea party candidates. The GOP felt as though it lost opportunities to win control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, when weak tea party candidates such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle of Nevada and Richard Mourdock of Indiana were nominated but lost in the general elections.
Party rallies around Tillis
Tillis, the current state House speaker and a former IBM business consultant who worked his way up through the political system, was tapped early by national party leaders as the GOP’s best hope of unseating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
He began getting advice, help and financial aid from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove, the former White House strategist. Later, more help would come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, Gov. Pat McCrory and Jeb Bush.
Rove’s group, American Crossroads, for example, spent $1.6 million on behalf of Tillis’ campaign, almost entirely on TV, according to the Federal Election Commission. That compares with the $105,499 spent on behalf of Brannon by FreedomWorks, his chief tea party ally. That money went largely to yard signs, telephone calls and other campaign paraphernalia.
In the Senate race so far, 90 percent of the spending has been by outside groups.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said the ability of much of the GOP to galvanize around a candidate is a sign of a mature, disciplined party large enough to put aside differences.
“There clearly are differences in the party,” Taylor said. “But the Republicans are maturing and are better able to deal with these in-house rather than within divisive primaries.”
N.C. GOP’s factional history
North Carolina has long been fertile ground for intense factional competition within the Republican Party. But today’s fights are pale imitations of the blood feuds of the 1970s and 1980s between the traditional mountain and business Republicans headed by Gov. Jim Holshouser and the rise of the more conservative wing of the party headed by Helms.
It reached its height in the 1976 presidential primary in North Carolina, when the Helms organization backed the challenger, Ronald Reagan, over President Gerald Ford. It was the first time a sitting president had ever lost a party primary. The party was so divided that Holshouser and the state’s two GOP congressmen, Jim Broyhill and Jim Martin, were prevented from being delegates to the national convention that year because they backed Ford.
Wrenn said the major difference between 1976 and today was that in Reagan, the outsiders had a powerful, clear voice for change who was able to raise the money to be heard on TV.
Today, the party establishment is far more powerful – in both parties – because of its ability raise money from corporate interests based on its ability to do favors, Wrenn said.
“The muscle the establishment has today is unprecedented in terms of their ability to outspend the outsiders,” he said.
Thoroughly conservative party
Tom Fetzer, a former state GOP chairman and former Raleigh mayor who oversaw the current rise of Republican control of state government, said the Senate debate has been muted because there is now broad agreement on the issues, and the candidates now mainly disagree about tactics.
“The debate in the 1970s was whether the party was moderate or conservative,” Fetzer said. “That debate ended some time ago. Every Republican is conservative. It’s just a question of how far are you willing to go to fight for conservative principles and values.”
Wrenn said the differences among the candidates are deeper than were evident during the debates.
“I think the difference between the insiders and the outsiders is subtle and difficult to articulate and maybe the language hasn’t been found yet,” Wrenn said. “But essentially, the insiders (Tillis) want to have incremental change and preserve the current system, whereas the outsiders (Brannon and Harris) want a fundamental change in the current political system.”
Much of the nuance, he said, relates to the use of government in ways that “gain special advantage for individuals or groups.”
“The insiders play that game,” Wrenn said. “The outsider fundamentally want to change that game.”
But without the money for the outsiders to go on TV, Wrenn said, there was little chance that GOP primary voters would hear the debate.
The political equation would change, Wrenn said, if one of the candidates could force a runoff with Tillis. With turnout likely scant in mid-summer, the outcome would be unpredictable.
Brannon or Harris “have a legitimate hope of getting in a runoff,” Wrenn said. “If that happens, everything might change.”
But one of those candidates would have to have a message strong enough to persuade voters to take a chance on an outsider. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Rob Christensen has been writing about N.C. politics for 41 years for The (Raleigh) News & Observer. He is the author of “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics.”
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