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Did North Carolina Finish the Tea Party?

This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

The first conclusion to be drawn from North Carolina is an obvious one, but still needs to be restated. Good candidates beat bad candidates while indifferent ones are always vulnerable to upset. In 2010 and 2012 those mainstream Republican candidates that got beaten by Tea Party challengers were either lackluster campaigners like Delaware’s Mike Castle or arrogant out-of-touch incumbents like Indiana’s Richard Lugar. Tea Party candidates also win when they are simply better than their opponents, as was the case with Ted Cruz in Texas. Tillis may not be the North Carolina GOP’s savior, but the veteran state house politician was not going to be outworked by the likes of Brannon, even if he had Rand Paul on his side. 

The second is that the obits about the Tea Party are premature. What many journalists fail to remember is that what happened in 2010 was a sea change in the Republican Party that caused virtually everyone in the party to join with more conservative or libertarian elements to oppose the stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The differences between the so-called establishment that rejoiced at Tillis’s victory and the Tea Party, which is supposedly mourning it, are for the most part tactical rather than ideological. The candidates that mainstream national GOP fundraisers like Karl Rove are backing in primaries are all conservatives, not moderates. What unites them is that they are savvy enough to be able to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats rather than only preaching to the right-wing choir. And where Republicans produce a candidate like Tillis who agrees with the Tea Party on most issues but also is smart enough not to say things that will hurt him in November, they can win primaries as well as have a shot in a general election.

The point is, the Tea Party’s influence is not so much in its ability to generate candidates whose sole purpose is to knock off established Republicans but in influencing the party to remain true to its principles on taxing and spending. After all, few Republicans disagreed about the need to stop ObamaCare prior to last fall’s government shutdown; the disagreement was over whether it was a wise tactic.

Nevertheless, primaries in Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky will give Republicans other chances to decide whether their goal is ideological purity or a conservative majority in the Senate in January. If mainstream candidates win in these states we will be told the Tea Party is dead. That will be wrong. What will have died if North Carolina is a bellwether is a strain of politics that is bent on tearing the GOP apart. What will survive is a conservative message that has been largely shaped by the Tea Party that has a good chance of sweeping the country this fall, as it did in 2010.

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