Thom Tillis’ victory in the North Carolina Republican Senate race is not the big win for the establishment some are claiming it to be, and it’s certainly not indicative of a Tea Party decline as pundits like Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post would have you believe.
Rubin, who gleefully describes the establishment candidate’s win as a “wipeout” and proof that Tea Party groups “waste donors’ money and destructively attack conservative, electable candidates” couldn’t be further from the truth. The Tea Party is alive and well in North Carolina, and more people want Constitutional conservatism than the status quo, but that doesn’t always translate into a victory. There are multiple reasons for this.
First, the vote was split among anti-establishment candidates. While N.C. House Speaker Tillis won the primary 46 percent to Greg Brannon’s 27 percent, there were eight people in the race—not the “four-person race” Rubin erroneously claims in her article. Combine all seven candidates, and you get 54 percent to Tillis’ 46. Hardly a wipeout for the establishment candidate.
Not only that, according to Public Policy Polling, in a race between Brannon and Tillis, it would be 46 to 40 percent in favor of Tillis with 14 percent not sure—enough to open the door to a Brannon win similar to Ted Cruz’s long-shot victory in his 2012 runoff. This is why the establishment was terrified of a runoff in North Carolina.
Second, Tillis had more money, as Rubin points out, and the Tea Party wasn’t as financially invested in the anti-establishment candidates as some would believe. The Tea Party spent less than $200,000 on Brannon and nothing on Baptist minister Mark Harris. The Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth stayed out of the North Carolina race completely.
More than $2.5 million dollars poured into North Carolina in support of Tillis from outside groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the Chamber of Commerce. While Brannon and Harris worked hard to raise money with the help of grassroots organizations and FreedomWorks, in the end they didn’t have the money to match Tillis’ advertising campaign: 82 percent of North Carolinians saw television ads for Tillis as opposed to 37 percent who saw ads in support for Brannon and 35 percent for Harris.
Despite the financial advantage and name recognition, Tillis still didn’t have a strong campaign. While more people saw ads by Tillis, the campaign itself was rather lackluster and failed to turn into the nasty brawl many expected. Tillis didn’t pull out any real negative campaigning until the last week when he sent out a flyer accusing Brannon of being late on paying his property taxes. Even questions about Brannon’s dealings with investors didn’t gain steam as his numbers continued to increase, albeit slowly and not enough to overtake Tillis.
Third, Brannon didn’t connect with people as well as he needed to, especially during the debate on April 22 at Davidson College. It wasn’t his Tea Party ideas that turned people away—those are quite popular in the state. It was his personality and his approach, which I saw firsthand at a fundraising event with Sen. Mike Lee. While Brannon could quote the Constitution like no one else—something Lee praised him for as he introduced him to the small, mostly older crowd—Brannon came across as somewhat heady and disconnected from the people in the room.
During the debate at Davidson, Brannon quoted the Constitution 15 times right out of the gate. While Harris and Army nurse Heather Grant talked about personal issues or made practical applications, Brannon often focused on the Constitution, which made him seem academic and even harsh at times, especially compared to the others. Don’t get me wrong. The Constitution is central to the conservative message, but Tea Party candidates can get their point across about freedom and about what the Constitution says without sounding like a lawyer or a legal scholar.
Conservatives need to apply the message of the Constitution to people’s lives in a real and personal way—in a way they can relate to and understand. They need to be inspired and touched by the message of freedom, not just hear citations of which article in the Constitution says what.
Too often, Brannon sounded like a biblical scholar trying to evangelize to the downtrodden or even the skeptic by quoting Scripture at them. For example, when asked about what Republicans need to do to be successful in campaigns and governing, Brannon said, “I believe this is the question. It’s what the Constitution is, what the Republic is. The Constitution restrains the federal government, gives it 18 functions in article 1 section 8. . .” Meanwhile, Harris connected with the audience, making eye contact with them and talking about standing for what you believe.
When asked about immigration, Brannon brusquely said, “First thing, no amnesty. Our citizenship is precious and special. In the Constitution article four, section four, it’s the federal government’s role to actually protect sovereign borders.” The other candidates kept it simple, even personal, and talked about the need to close the borders first so people can be protected.
The impact on some voters was to turn away from Brannon to other candidates—not because they were pro-establishment or swayed by Karl Rove’s millions and not because they disagreed with Brannon. But they found him to be personally disconnected and they put their vote toward someone else.
Bill Janning, a retired Marine and Aerospace Field Service Engineer for Boeing who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., supported Brannon at the outset, but after the debate, he decided to vote for Harris.
“Brannon absolutely stood for a lot of things that I believe in—more so than Tillis,” Janning said. “He stands for the Constitution. I support that. I also agree with him on social issues. He’s right there. He can quote the Constitution backwards and forwards, but I think in the debate that was a negative. In my opinion he is not very effective in projecting his feelings without alienating some people. I think he lost connectivity with the people. It’s not that the people aren’t interested or that they don’t believe in what he’s saying, but they want to hear it in a more practical and personal way. I got that from Mark Harris. He was the one I connected to the most and that’s why I ended up voting for him.”
While Janning—as well as others I met at local rallies—agreed with Tillis on some issues, he found him too aligned with the ruling class and not willing to reduce the federal government and return power to the states. Janning was also bothered by the “big guns” and campaign money that came in from outside the state to influence how North Carolinians vote.
There should have been more of an even playing field, and all this big money from out of state isn’t right, Janning said. The best candidate for North Carolina isn’t Tillis, he said. It’s Harris, but he didn’t have much of a chance because of all the money coming in from outside.
“Harris is the one who could really challenge Kay Hagan,” Janning said. “I’m afraid we’re going to have a hard time beating her with someone like Tillis.”
Janning is right, and the poll numbers bear that out—despite Rubin’s claims that Republicans “now have the most electable and best-funded Senate opponent available to go against the vulnerable Hagan.”
Hagan is vulnerable, and Tillis might be the best funded but, according to the Real Clear Politics average, the election is a tossup with Hagan edging out Tillis 43.3 to 42.5. That’s close, but according to the last poll taken by Public Policy Polling, all the other candidates in the race would have beaten Hagan. Mark Harris wins 44 to 40; Heather Grant, 43 to 39; and Greg Brannon, 42 to 40. Hagan loses to the rest of the field by 1 percent. All except Tillis—hardly the sure thing Rubin thinks he is.
While Karl Rove, the Chamber of Commerce, and other establishment types claim to be the ones who really care about finding the most electable candidate in key elections, their actions prove otherwise. Polling numbers alone show that Tillis is not the most electable candidate in North Carolina. In addition, a closer look at what’s actually happening on the ground in the state reveals a complexity to voter decisions that establishment types choose to overlook in favor of their “Diss the Tea Party” narrative.
Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal criticized Rand Paul for supporting a weak candidate like Greg Brannon, saying, “Mr. Paul and his tea-party phalanx appear to oppose Mr. Tillis for no other reason than he’s the choice of the ‘establishment,’ including Mr. McCrory, Mitt Romney, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and dozens of Republican legislators.”
Finley claims that the establishment is backing Tillis “because as speaker he’s quarterbacked government reforms championed by tea party groups.”
While it’s true that Tillis has supported Tea Party causes, such as abortion legislation and reduction in the income tax, are these really the reasons the establishment is backing Tillis? Or is the real story that the establishment backs candidates like Tillis because they support policies and programs that maintain the size and scope of government, such as Obamacare, Common Core, and amnesty (something the establishment cares very much about because their corporate donors have been pushing for it)?
If the establishment is really interested in Tea Party causes as Finley says, then why not back a candidate who is actually beating Kay Hagan in the polls and whose stance on Common Core and Obamacare actually aligns more with North Carolina voters’ than does Tillis’?
It’s not Rand Paul who is supporting Tea Party candidates simply because they oppose “the establishment.” It’s the establishment who is opposing the Tea Party, no matter what the people in a given state want or whether the establishment’s chosen candidate is actually electable.
Of course, now that Tillis has won, conservatives need to support him as Rand Paul has done. The election in North Carolina is vital to winning the Senate. Tea Partiers across North Carolina need to follow Paul’s lead and help Tillis in his fight against Hagan. He’s not the best candidate, but he’s all North Carolina has. In the upcoming months, conservatives need to figure out how to help Tillis become the candidate the establishment imagines he is. With the right campaign and the right focus, maybe he can be, maybe he can defeat Kay Hagan, and help the Republicans take back the Senate.
D.C. is a journalist who lives in Charlotte, NC.