A key GOP primary, a proxy war for the party’s soul


    Hey, there’s a key election tonight! We’re likely to get an early reading on whether the far-right extremists will again screw up the GOP’s prospects for winning the Senate – just as they did in 2010 and 2012.

    It’s all happening tonight in North Carolina, where a Senate Republican primary has become a proxy war for the party’s soul, a testing ground for the Washington establishment’s latest attempt to nominate candidates who can actually win a November contest. Perhaps someone like Thom Tillis, speaker of the House in North Carolina.

    Major establishment money, and big establishment endorsements (Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney), has been lavished on Tillis. If he can vanquish his tea-party challenger as well as his religious-right challenger, that would suggest that the party regulars are back in control – and that in 2014 there will be no nutcase nominees like Nevada’s Sharron Angle (who said it’s OK if a rape victim is impregnated, because “God has a plan”) and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell (“I’m not a witch”) and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock (an impregnated rape victim is “something that God intended”) and Missouri’s Todd Akin (who said that rape victims can thwart pregnancy by blocking the sperm).

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    But here’s the deal for Tillis: Under North Carolina rules, he won’t emerge tonight as the Republican senatorial nominee unless he gets at least 40 percent of the votes. According to the final round of polls, he’s hovering at or near 40 percent. In other words, most Republican primary voters aren’t sure that Tillis is sufficiently right wing. Tillis calls himself a results-oriented “practical conservative,” and the problem, of course, is that right-wingers don’t like the word practical. It sounds too much like compromise, and they sure don’t want any of that.

    So tonight, there’s a chance that Tillis will be held below the magic 40 percent – and forced into a July runoff with his closest insurgent challenger, a tea-partying doctor named Greg Brannon. Brannon has never held any elective office, which naturally appeals to the government-hating voters. Brannon also has tons of heavy baggage (he co-sponsored a rally last year with a southern secessionist group, he has entertained the belief that 9/11 was an inside job, he compares food stamps to slavery, and on and on). Brannon has been endorsed by the tea-partying group FreedomWorks, and he has been championed on the stump by Senator Rand Paul, which should tell you plenty.

    One other thing: A religious-right candidate is also on the primary ballot – Baptist pastor Mark Harris has been endorsed by Mike Huckabee – and Harris might well aid Brannon by keeping Tillis below 40 percent. If Tillis is forced to go one on one with Brannon in July, Harris’ voters could migrate to the remaining insurgent. That would be bad for Tillis. The last thing he wants is to have another intramural war during the summer, when he’d rather be fighting the vulnertable Democratic incumbent, Kay Hagan.

    It’s a bit puzzling that Tillis hasn’t had a much easier ride. Referring to Tillis last summer, right-wing firebrand Erick Erickson, editor of redstate.com, said that he would “rather vote for the pile of goo on the side of the road.” But why? As the state House speaker since the dawn of 2011, Tillis has been instrumental in passing or pushing a slew of conservative laws that have trashed North Carolina’s progressive reputation – slashing jobless benefits, cutting taxes for the state’s top five percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent, cutting early voting hours, erasing same-day voter registration, cutting $90 million from public schools and giving it to voucher schools, slashing a landmark clean water program, allowing gun fetishists to pack their pieces in playgrounds and booze bars, erasing the reforms that blunt the power of big donors in judicial elections, requiring that public schools teach anti-abortion propaganda starting in seventh grade, and much much more.

    And yet, apparently, that’s not good enough for the wingers.

    They view Tillis’ service in government as an intrinsic negative. They don’t like his ties to the business community (he was a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers), because apparently the business world is too practical for the winger sensibility. They’re not happy that Tillis has been touted in saturation TV ads financed by outside groups – most notably Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, and that’s a problem, because they don’t like Karl Rove. They also don’t like the fact that Tillis once referred to Obamacare as “a great idea that can’t be paid for,” because his remark contained the words “great idea.”

    Whatever. Here’s the bottom of line:

    If Republicans want to blow yet another winnable Senate race in November, all they have to do is force Tillis into a July runoff with Brannon. At minimum, that contest would bleed Tillis, because he’d have to fight Brannon while also presiding over a long-scheduled legislative session that would make him look like even more of a dreaded insider; also at minimum, he’d have to keep moving rightward just to win the runoff, thereby clearing the center for Kay Hagan in the fall. And the worse scenario is Brannon winning a low-turnout runoff while surfing a conservative wave, then getting hammered in November a la Todd Akin et al.

    So tonight – a forerunner of similar GOP senatorial primaries in Mississippi and Georgia – will test whether the party establishment can get its mojo back. As North Carolina GOP consultant Ballard Everett tells Newsweek, the Republicans “have this great ability to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. Every chance we get to do that, it appears we do it.” He and his fellow party regulars dearly hope that the past is not prologue.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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