How the GOP’s Establishment Candidate in North Carolina Won by Running Right

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 29 2014 6:35 PM

Just Right Enough

So much for the Republican “civil war” in North Carolina.

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, in April 2013.
North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis looks left but runs right.

Photo courtey NCDOT Communications/Flickr

RALEIGH, N.C.—The governor had tried to be polite about it. For months upon months, Pat McCrory avoided admitting what was obvious—that he wanted Thom Tillis, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, to be the Republican nominee for Senate. During those months, Tillis struggled to put distance between himself and two other candidates—a doctor endorsed by Rand Paul and a pastor endorsed by Mike Huckabee. McCrory stayed out of it. “Tillis has the best chance to win the general election,” McCrory told one interviewer, citing polls but no ground truth.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

That changed on Tuesday, one week before polls would close in the primary. At 9:55 a.m., North Carolina’s Public Policy Polling released a survey that showed Tillis easily winning the race and avoiding a runoff. Ten minutes later, McCrory strolled into a local sheet metal design company, admired a red metal TILLIS sign that hung near a podium, and announced his “plan to vote on the ballot for Thom Tillis.”

The candidate, a 53-year-old with closed-cropped hair and narrow eyes, beamed as the governor gave him credit for everything that had happened since Republicans won total control of the state. “No longer is North Carolina the fifth-highest in unemployment in the country,” said McCrory, who led the party’s 2012 sweep. “Now it’s not even in the top 30 … there’s no doubt in my mind that Thom Tillis has risen to the top in this interview process.”

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North Carolina has become an abattoir for easy political narratives. Last summer, as McCrory and Tillis approved decades of pent-up right-wing legislation—voter ID, tax cuts, legal fracking, limits on legal abortion—Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan led Tillis by as much as 15 points. McCrory’s own approval rating has yet to recover, and progressives have never stopped organizing “Moral Monday” protests of the legislature. Just two weeks ago, the New York Times profiled Tillis’ race as a microcosm of the GOP’s “civil war.”

But all of a sudden, Tillis has become a senator-in-waiting, the best example of how the Republican Party’s drive to the right has robbed space from Tea Party challengers. Americans for Prosperity has blanketed the state with “educational” ads intended to make this easier for him, as has American Crossroads. Tillis won them over by keeping North Carolina out of the Affordable Care Act's exchanges and Medicaid expansion. In doing so he may end the short political career of Dr. Greg Brannon, the Rand Paul candidate, and the sort of Republican who won these sorts of elections until the rest of the party figured out how to discredit them.

Brannon had never run for an office besides this one. He was once another conservative driven to distraction, then passion, early in the reign of President Obama. “I was on a run at the beach,” he told reporter Paul Specht. “I just felt God lay on my heart: November ’14, Hagan’s seat.” By mid-2009 he’d founded a Tea Party blog and was speaking at rallies, and by 2013 he was putting together a campaign team that included veterans of Sen. Ted Cruz’s Texas win and young people trained in Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty boot camps.

“This guy’s amazing,” said Utah Sen. Mike Lee while stumping for Brannon this year. “This man quotes the Constitution more, with greater fluidity, with greater degree of comfort and familiarity than perhaps any other candidate I’ve ever met. The only one who comes close is named Ted Cruz.”

That might have been unfair to Brannon, who never heard a question that couldn’t be answered with a constitutional citation. When Hagan suggested that the 2013 versions of gun control legislation were worth debating, Brannon called that “democracy, which is actually socialism, which is called majority rule.” When musing about how frequently America mobilized troops without a congressional declaration of war, he suggested “we’d be much better if we had a militia of North Carolina, a militia of Maryland, exactly the way the Constitution stated.”

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