Has the tea party 'won'? Yes, if you're trying to make a political point

The tea party candidate lost in the North Carolina Senate primary this week. But the movement is far from dead and, in some ways, is 'winning,' say activists on both ends of the political spectrum.

Chuck Burton/AP
Thom Tillis speaks to supporters at a election night rally in Charlotte, N.C., after winning the Republican nomination for the US Senate on Tuesday. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, ran as a proud conservative who’s not terribly different from his tea party and Christian-right opponents.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Richard Viguerie are political polar opposites, but they largely agree on one thing: The tea party has either “won” or is “winning.”

One, the chair of the Democratic National Committee and a Florida congresswoman, and the other, an old bull conservative and guru of direct-mail fundraising, have their own reasons for being so bold.

Representative Wasserman Schultz may be trying to scare Democratic voters, who are notorious for not turning out in midterms. Mr. Viguerie is promoting his new book, “Takeover: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win It.”

If nothing else, they demonstrate that after five years, the tea party still resonates powerfully, for better or worse – even as some political players are ready to write the movement’s obituary.

Indeed, the victory of Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, in Tuesday’s GOP primary for US Senate was widely seen as a victory by the “Republican establishment” over the tea party. He handily beat several tea party-oriented candidates, in what could be a long, tough primary season for the movement – and perhaps bad news for Democrats, including Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who faces Speaker Tillis in November.

Wasserman Schultz rejects that analysis.

“The tea party has won the civil war that has been raging inside the Republican Party,” she asserted at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Wednesday.

“Thom Tillis is no longer, if he ever was, an establishment candidate,” Wasserman Schultz said. “As speaker of the House, he has presided over some of the most extreme right-wing policies that have ever been enacted by a legislature. He has taken positions by being forced to the right – and I’m assuming he’s done that willingly.”

She seemed to be saying that “establishment” equals “moderate” – and that Tillis is no moderate. But regardless of his politics, in his Senate primary, there’s no doubt that major GOP figures and groups were on his side, from North Carolina’s governor to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who may run for president in 2016. In addition, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads, each spent more than $1 million on ads for Tillis.

There’s also no doubt that Tillis is the strongest challenger to Senator Hagan of the crowded GOP Senate primary field, and his victory boosts the Republicans’ chances of taking over the Senate in November.

So what about Tillis’s politics? His background suggests a “Rotary Club Republican.” He lives in suburban Charlotte and made his career as a business consultant, before getting into politics in 2006. As a legislator, he helped engineer the Republican takeover of the state General Assembly, becoming House speaker in 2011.

Since then, the legislature has cut taxes and regulations, cut education funding and unemployment insurance, expanded gun rights, added abortion restrictions, banned gay marriage in the state constitution, and passed a voter-ID law. Tillis has also been a leader in the powerful conservative group ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – which drafts model bills for state legislatures.

During the GOP primary debates, “there was very little space, issue-wise, between Tillis and his closest opponents,” says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

His top competitor, tea party-oriented physician Greg Brannon, was supported by Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and the Washington-based group FreedomWorks, but other national tea party groups stayed out of the race, as did some major "super PACs," such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, which are backing tea partyers in other races. Dr. Brannon was a first-time candidate and had a history of making provocative statements – two strikes against him in a movement that lost Senate seats that Republicans had been expected to win over gaffes in the past two cycles.

So while Tillis’s win can credibly be called an establishment victory over the tea party, it wasn’t a fully engaged battle. The Mississippi GOP Senate primary on June 6, which pits a fully backed tea party candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, against a fully backed establishment candidate, Sen. Thad Cochran, will be a better test.

In North Carolina, a purple state won by President Obama in 2008, the next test for Tillis is whether he can appeal to enough independents and moderates to defeat an incumbent. The state legislature, which he leads, has low public approval, and Hagan and the Democrats are trying to lash it to Tillis.

But whether they can convince North Carolina swing voters that Tillis is really a far-right tea partyer is another question.  

Mr. Viguerie, the direct-mail pioneer and latter-day tea partyer, is disappointed that Tillis beat Brannon in the primary, but no matter: “Our issues are winning,” he says.

“There is ‘gridlock’ in Washington not because Big Government establishment Republicans and Big Government establishment Democrats can’t agree; there is gridlock because the GOP has been pushed to the right by limited government constitutional conservative members of Congress on practically every issue from spending to appointing a Select Committee to investigate Benghazi,” Viguerie writes in a column called, “Tea Party Winning.”

Viguerie also looks approvingly on a comment by Washington Post political analyst Dan Balz, who writes that, on substance, there are few boundaries between the Republican establishment and the tea party.

“They may differ on tactics and procedures at times, and party leaders have disparaged some of the outside groups that have backed tea party challengers in primaries,” Mr. Balz writes. “But on the issues, the GOP is quite united and more conservative than it was a decade ago. The real test of the movement’s influence is likely to come in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries.”

In 2014, the test for Tillis is whether he can appeal to the middle while holding onto conservatives.

“I think the story is that just as Mitt Romney was yanked to the right by having to run in Southern primaries, Tillis has been yanked to the right by his need to survive in this Republican Party,” says Mr. Guillory.

Now, Tillis has to pivot for the general election. And clearly, Hagan is vulnerable. Last month, her job approval was at 41 percent among registered voters, according to North Carolina-based Public Policy Polling. If North Carolina midterm voters decide Tillis is a better fit for their state, that will be a nail in the coffin for the Democrats’ Senate majority. 

Update: A Rasmussen poll released Friday shows Tillis and Hagan in a dead heat, with Tillis at 45 percent and Hagan at 44 percent. The survey of 750 likely North Carolina voters was taken during the two days following the May 6 primary.

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