The Republican Establishment Strikes Back

How the GOP's old guard, led by Mitch McConnell, is working to stifle Tea Party challenges in states like North Carolina, Mississippi, and Kentucky
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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. 

The Strategy 

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.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

James Oliphant is a White House correspondent at National Journal.

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