The horse race watchers in the national media couldn’t be more excited about the results of the North Carolina Republican senate primary Tuesday where state House Speaker Thom Tillis won the nomination by capturing 45 percent of the vote, handily defeating Tea Partier Greg Brannon and Charlotte minister Mark Harris—both making their first run for public office.
The Washington talking heads are declaring it a huge win and vindication for the GOP establishment, a sign that the Republican Party is coming to its senses after nominating extremist and unelectable Senate candidates in key states in the last two election cycles.
It sets up the knock-down drag-out battle between Tillis and Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in the fall, a race that may determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.
But Tillis’ primary victory looks a little different from inside the state where it doesn’t fit so neatly into the formula the national pundits are applying to the race.
Tillis received less than half the Republican primary vote in a race where he had almost all the money, all the outside big-spending independent groups on his side and a main contender in Brannon who ran no television commercials and who lost an embarrassing civil court case just three months ago.
Brannon, who says openly that he doesn’t believe in public schools and that North Carolina shouldn’t have to abide by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, still received 27 percent of the primary vote against Tillis.
Mark Harris, the evangelical minister and leader of the forces that passed a marriage discrimination amendment to the state constitution two years, ago, was the choice of more than 17 percent of Republican primary voters.
Brannon and Harris combined received roughly the same number of votes as Tillis, despite Tillis’ massive financial advantages and endorsements from virtually every major Republican interest group from the NRA to the U.S Chamber of Commerce.
But Tillis was never going to lose this race, despite all the handwringing from punditland. Their celebration of his victory is like applauding the Harlem Globetrotters for beating the Washington Generals in the 1970s. It was hardly a surprise.
The story of the primary win isn’t that Tillis won a resounding victory that validates him as a candidate and gives him strong momentum as he turns his attention towards Kay Hagan.
The story of the primary is that there was a race at all, that more than half the Republican primary voters cast their ballots for someone else for the U.S Senate and that Tillis felt obligated to move further right to ensure a victory that should have been a cakewalk.
Voters now know that Tillis, already weighed down by a long list of unpopular and regressive legislation passed by the General Assembly he has led for the last four years, supports an extreme “personhood” amendment that threatens women’s health care choices and birth control options and that he not only opposes an increase in the minimum wage, but questions the need for a minimum wage at all.
Those are positions that put Tillis far outside the mainstream in North Carolina. Then there are his comments in 2011 about the need to “divide and conquer” people on public assistance, first reported by NC Policy Watch and captured on video for the world to see that are now the talk of the national blogosphere.
The pundits are right that the battle between Tillis and Hagan in the fall will be fierce. The Koch brothers and their allies have already spent $8 million attacking Hagan for her support of the Affordable Care Act, though that vote now looks like less of a liability as lies about the health care law are fading from voters’ minds and after North Carolina ranked 5th in the number of people signing up for health care coverage earlier this year.
But Hagan is clearly vulnerable in this midterm election and Tillis is the strongest candidate to run against her. But we knew that before Tuesday’s election results.
It was a foregone conclusion that Tillis would divide and conquer the Republican primary field, whether the pundits want to admit it or not.
Now is when things get really interesting.