PINEHURST, N.C.—On a rainy afternoon a month before North Carolina's May 6 Republican primary, state House Speaker and Senate hopeful Thom Tillis was at the Pinehurst Resort and golf course, where the U.S. Open will be held later this year. But the three-minute speech Tillis gave made him sound more like he was at the Masters, being measured for a green jacket.
At a lunch forum sponsored by the Moore (County) Republican Women, to which all of the GOP candidates were invited, Tillis was acting like a winner: He had the support of 22 state senators and 68 members of the General Assembly, he boasted; he'd just wrapped up a "great" fundraising quarter, bringing in $1.3 million over the previous three months. He saw no meaningful differences between himself and his seven opponents, except the one that mattered: "It comes down to experience and a path to beating Kay Hagan. Our goal is to beat Kay Hagan," Tillis said. "They know that we stand ready to beat them, and we're most likely the state that will deliver … a GOP majority!"
Then Tillis mentioned that a major endorsement had just come in. "Probably my proudest moment in public service happened this morning when I was driving up here," he said. "I just received the endorsement of the National Right to Life, and more than anybody else, more than any organization I can think of, I'm proud that they recognize the work that we've done to save the lives of the unborn.
On a couch in the resort's ornate reception area after the speeches, another candidate, Mark Harris, the senior pastor at Charlotte's First Baptist Church and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, expressed disbelief. "When he said he had the endorsement of the National Right to Life—somebody needs to check into that," Harris said. "Because we all met with the National Right to Life. I know I met with them in October, and they indicated to me that they probably would not be endorsing in the primary."
But one of Harris's strategists, Mike Rusher, who had been standing beside him scrolling through screens on his smartphone, quickly confirmed that the endorsement was real. Harris turned red and paused for a few seconds before responding. "I guess it's just an indication of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's pressure," he said. As it turned out, it was worse than that. In the press release announcing the endorsement, National Right to Life President Carol Tobias said Tillis was the "only candidate with a proven record of leadership who can defeat pro-abortion Sen. Hagan this fall."
Electability was trumping ideological purity—just as the establishment had planned.
After being caught flat-footed by Tea Party insurgents in 2010, allowing candidates like Delaware's Christine O'Donnell and Nevada's Sharron Angle to win the GOP nomination and then self-destruct—and then, for fear of alienating the newly empowered Right, copping a largely laissez-faire attitude in 2012—the Republican establishment, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is taking a different approach this time around.
In March, McConnell told The New York Times he was going to "crush" outside conservative groups that dared to take on Senate incumbents. Tillis isn't an incumbent, but he is nonetheless an early beneficiary of the emerging establishment strategy to engage its own roster of outside groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a coordinated effort to ensure that the most electable GOP candidates get nominated, especially in pivotal Senate contests.
Instead of merely handing out endorsements, these groups are spending big on expensive advertising campaigns on behalf of their favored candidates. They're quietly circulating opposition research raising questions about Tea Party challengers' fitness to serve. And they're even airing positive testimonials—an approach once considered the domain of the candidates themselves, not outside groups. (The New York Times reported that more than a quarter of the ads from super PAC American Crossroads so far this cycle have had a positive spin; not a single one did in 2012.)
McConnell former Chief of Staff Billy Piper says that McConnell learned from two veteran Republican senators who managed to beat back conservative opposition with aggressive tactics. In 2010, John McCain won decisively by raising big money, moving to the right on immigration, and casting his opponent—former House member and talk-show host J.D. Hayworth—as out of the mainstream. Two years later, Orrin Hatch attacked outside conservative groups that attempted to paint him as a moderate, winning two-thirds of the GOP primary vote against an opponent backed by the Tea Party group FreedomWorks.
"It's a good lesson, one that McConnell certainly noticed. It fits in with his mode of campaigning: very aggressive, getting involved early, making sure no one is successful at defining you," says Piper, now a lobbyist whose shop maintains close connections with Senate Republicans. "Nobody likes family squabbles, but at the end of the day the goal is to produce candidates that can win in the fall. The Chamber has been a leader to make sure we can accomplish that result. I don't think anyone looks at the last couple of cycles and thinks we did a very good job generally. Something had to change, and they had the courage to step up and do what was right."
Tillis is the prototype of an establishment candidate. The onetime PricewaterhouseCoopers partner-turned-ladder-climbing-state-legislative-leader is a Republican donor's dream, and he's got the fundraising results to prove it. He has ties to Wall Street and the business community, political experience, and a strategist's sensibility: He led the successful GOP effort to retake the General Assembly in 2010, giving Republicans unified control of state government for the first time in more than a century. And Tillis is disciplined. He is consistently on message, never straying into dangerous waters. In short, Tillis, with his pragmatic streak and country-club credentials, represents just about everything Tea Partiers rose up to oppose.
Thus far, he has handled that delicate matter largely by keeping a low profile in the race, whenever possible avoiding forums where his conservative opponents might raise questions about his ideological fidelity. (Unlike Harris, whose evangelical charisma is one of his political strengths, Tillis didn't seem at all disappointed that the candidates' speeches at the Pinehurst forum were limited to three minutes apiece.) The plan is for him simply to run out the primary clock—while teammates like American Crossroads, which had begun singing his praises that week to the tune of $1 million in ads, hold off his rivals.
As he mingled with the retirees in the ballroom, Tillis was buoyed by more than just the National Right to Life endorsement. He had also just learned that he was to receive the enthusiastic backing of the U.S. Chamber; the National Rifle Association would soon follow suit. Careful as Tillis is, he couldn't help but crow a bit, saying that he'd love to become chairman of the NRSC, helping to elect other Republican senators in the future—presuming that he won his own race, of course.
But his confidence to some degree belied the primary danger he still faced: being forced into a runoff with a rival to his right. Two years ago, the Texas establishment stood behind Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst in his primary battle against one Ted Cruz. Dewhurst finished first in the primary, but Cruz took him to a runoff. The rest is history.
Forty percent is the portion of the vote required to avoid a runoff in North Carolina, and it will be the first real test of success for Tillis, and for the McConnell strategy. The goal of all of these early machinations—and the millions in accompanying spending—is to clear Tillis's path by clearing the field. If Tillis doesn't hit the 40 percent mark, that effort fails. The contest suddenly becomes a one-on-one battle between an establishment favorite and an insurgent conservative, in a low-turnout race in the middle of the summer, no less. And that's when the contest could turn ugly, expensive, and politically costly.
In early April, just as the outside money was starting to get spent, all signs pointed to Tillis being comfortably ahead but still far from assured of avoiding a second round of voting in July. A poll commissioned by American Crossroads and conducted in mid-April found Tillis winning 27 percent of the vote—17 points ahead of Harris, and 11 points ahead of his other top rival, Greg Brannon, a FreedomWorks-backed obstetrician who characterizes himself as a "servant-citizen" steeped in constitutional principles. ("There's nobody in this race that understands the Constitution like I do. The only guy that's even close to me is Ted Cruz," he told National Journal.) Brannon had been unable to attend the Pinehurst event (he was in surgery), but in a town that doubles as a retirement mecca and a Tea Party center, he nonetheless drew as many supporters as Tillis.
"You can buy TV, but the most persuasive deliverer of message is my neighbor," says Russ Walker, the national political director for FreedomWorks. To that end, he says, FreedomWorks volunteers have already knocked on 60,000 doors, planted 24,000 lawn signs, and made 100,000 phone calls on Brannon's behalf. "That kind of energy is key. One-on-one sells the candidate."
If Tillis finds himself stuck in a runoff, he'll have to split time between campaigning and overseeing the legislative session, which begins shortly after the primary. Wielding power in Raleigh while his opponent, be it Brannon or Harris, cultivates the grassroots, he'll look more than ever like an establishment candidate—and not in a way that's likely to help his cause.
"If we win the nomination in May, we win the race [against Hagan]. If we win it in July, we have to sing and dance at the same time," says Tillis strategist Brad Todd. "It gets complicated if we have a runoff. It means we have to do two things at one time."
But North Carolina is an expensive state for campaign advertising, with a very high financial threshold over which a candidate must climb to get his or her message out. Even as they view Tillis warily, outside conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have kept their distance from the race, and barnstorming backers of his conservative rivals have been scarce. Brannon regularly mentions his support from Senator Rand Paul, but the Kentuckian didn't commit to campaigning for him until the very end of the race. (Senator Mike Lee, another supporter, campaigned for Brannon in March.) Harris touts his endorsement from former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, but only Huckabee's wife campaigned for him in the primary's critical closing month.
And in Pinehurst that day, whatever the latest polls might have said or the number of boosters who turned out, the news of the National Right to Life endorsement made Tillis's campaign feel like a juggernaut. In the ballroom, Tillis predicted he had an "85 percent chance" of avoiding a runoff. If he's right, his success will be a sign of the resurgence of the McConnell political machine.
For Republicans hoping to win back the Senate majority, the stakes in the North Carolina primary are high. The race, in a diversifying Southern state featuring a cross section of important constituencies, is expected to be a bellwether for control of the upper chamber. But the flood-the-zone approach on Tillis's behalf is also an important test run for more-contentious battles to follow, where the establishment is actively taking on more-conservative competition.
The approach to each race is carefully crafted. In those featuring vulnerable incumbents, groups have hit the challengers hard, both on TV and with embarrassing opposition research. To help Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated clips of old radio talk shows where his Tea Party rival, state Senator Chris McDaniel, made racially insensitive and sexist comments. To help Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas, the committee hit his primary opponent, radiologist Milton Wolf, for posting comments about corpses on Facebook. Even the U.S. Chamber, which rarely goes on the attack, has aired ads portraying GOP challengers in Mississippi and Idaho as shady "trial lawyers." And a newly created super PAC with ties to GOP donors Sheldon Adelson and Paul Singer has attacked Representative Phil Gingrey, who, despite being a House member, is viewed as one of the weakest candidates in the Georgia Senate race.
Establishment groups have also moved to boost their favored primary candidates, in North Carolina and beyond. Last month, the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Representative Jack Kingston in the Georgia Senate primary, a crowded race that pits the party's establishment wing against the conservative grassroots. Kingston, an 11-term congressman and longtime House appropriator who is viewed skeptically by conservative groups, has nonetheless gained traction in recent primary polls. The Chamber also cut an ad featuring Mitt Romney's endorsement of Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, who is facing Club for Growth-backed opponent Bryan Smith.
McConnell himself is heavily favored to win his May 20 primary challenge against Matt Bevin, despite being the top target of several outside conservative groups. Very early in his race, McConnell aired an ad that hit the Senate Conservatives Fund for wasting donors' money and tarred Bevin as a hypocrite for once supporting the notorious Troubled Asset Relief Program, modeling the hard-hitting tactics that many outside groups, including the U.S. Chamber, have since adopted.
"Right now, the establishment and their hired guns are firing at a level the challengers are not and cannot due to funding and less experience in politics," RedState Editor Erick Erickson wrote on his website this month, in light of the Tea Party challengers' struggles. Erickson, who is backing several conservative primary challengers to sitting senators, added, "K Street is pouring money into these races in a way the grassroots have never fundraised. The establishment intends to cling to their precious."
The most critical test of the establishment's firepower against the Right will come June 3 in Mississippi, where Cochran faces the toughest threat of his 42-year congressional career. Outside conservative groups are united behind McDaniel, who fashions himself as the Jim DeMint of the state Legislature, and they have spent more than $1 million to defeat Cochran. Democrats, sensing a rare opportunity to contest a seat in Mississippi, have recruited former Representative Travis Childers, a moderate Blue Dog who voted against Obamacare and who won a House seat in a deeply conservative district in 2008 by overcoming weak Republican opposition.
"The political environment favors McDaniel, and sometimes it's hard to overcome the political environment, one that's sick of Washington," says Henry Barbour, who is running the pro-Cochran super PAC Mississippi Conservatives (and who is the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour). "It's understandable that Americans are mad at Washington and want great change, but I can tell you that the quickest way to change Washington is to make sure Republicans take control."
The Final Battle
Navigating a primary successfully is, of course, a necessary but not sufficient condition for ensuring that a candidate will win the general. The logic that underpins the establishment's idea of who's electable does not always hold. In 2012, for example, even some of the establishment candidates for the Senate who didn't face serious primaries, such as Montana's Denny Rehberg and North Dakota's Rick Berg, performed poorly in the general election. They were chosen in part because they had served in Congress—a credential that insiders thought made them great picks—and yet they lost.
Democrats say they are confident that if Tillis wins the nomination, the state Legislature's sharp turn rightward will provide them with ample fodder to portray him as combining the GOP's two biggest general-election vulnerabilities: being beholden to the Far Right, and being closely associated with the political establishment. These days, they argue, Tea Party voters aren't the only ones who consider professional politicians to be toxic; anti-Washington sentiment is pervasive, and establishment Republicans who manage to leap out of the primary frying pan will find themselves facing the fire in the general election.
(Democrats have the same problems with Washington veterans. In Democratic-held open seats in Iowa and Michigan, Reps. Bruce Braley and Gary Peters have struggled despite their political experience. By contrast, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Michelle Nunn are both making headway in Kentucky and Georgia, running as political outsiders.)
As House speaker, Tillis passed bills that enraged the state's liberal base, including new abortion regulations, concealed-carry gun measures, cuts to unemployment benefits, and tighter voter-ID rules. When the Legislature is in session, liberal groups hold weekly demonstrations, known as Moral Mondays, at the state Capitol in Raleigh, protesting the conservative body's actions. If she faces Tillis, Hagan's plan will be to tie him to the actions of the Legislature at every turn, and, in a sense, give voters in the urban centers of Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte a chance to deliver a referendum on the rural-and-suburban-dominated General Assembly. "The way that Kay Hagan is successful is … [by making] this election about local issues," says Jackson, the Democratic strategist, who isn't affiliated with Hagan's campaign. "Make it about Tillis as much as possible: education, corporate tax cuts, teacher pay."
But in an illustration of how Tillis's ties to Raleigh could also hurt him on the right, Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC supporting Hagan, went up in April with a TV spot that references two separate extramarital affairs that then-Tillis staffers had with lobbyists; the staffers reportedly received severance payments from Tillis. Hagan's campaign also aired an ad on country-music and Christian radio stations that mentions the scandal and suggests, using an out-of-context quote, that Tillis praised Obamacare. Both ads are aimed at making conservatives think twice about Tillis—and thereby holding his share of the primary vote under 40 percent.
Whether or not the results of Tillis's race and the slew of those that follow lead to a Republican majority in the Senate, they will determine the new balance of power within the GOP. If the scorched-earth primary strategy succeeds, the establishment will be emboldened, as House Speaker John Boehner has been, to take on the Tea Party more aggressively than ever. If it fails—or even half-succeeds—then the Tea Party remains unvanquished and returns to fight another day.
In Pinehurst, Tillis didn't appear to be holding his breath, but he might have been the only one in Republican politics who wasn't, and the weeks that followed brought no reason for either side to exhale. By April 29, a Civitas Institute Poll found Tillis with 38 percent of the primary vote, a hair shy of what he needed to avoid a runoff. Brannon trailed him with 17 percent, and Harris followed with 14. That same day, Tillis officially received his prized endorsement, and the promise of "significant" ad buys, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—coupled with the backing of North Carolina's unpopular governor, Pat McCrory. The McConnell strategy's first big test was nigh.