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 reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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.”

That was how Brannon talked all the time, in most interviews and every debate, and especially in the April 28 public television debate that closed out the campaign. Each candidate was given a little red card with the word “rebuttal” on it, to be waved whenever he was lied about. Brannon never used it—he turned every question back to the section of the Constitution that invalidated it, then flashed a quick smile at his son in the audience.

Was the Affordable Care Act legal? “The Supreme Court has no power to enforce their opinion. This goes back to state sovereignty.”

How could America make Russia irrelevant? “In Article IV of the Constitution, the federal government makes money by selling its territories and land. Sell back parts of the western states again.”

Brannon dazzled his opponents with obscure references. He alone pointed out that America had not officially declared war since the beginning of conflict with Romania during World War II, and he alone asked the audience to read a foreign policy tract written by Sen. Robert Taft during his primary with Dwight Eisenhower. (A sample line: “The brazen disregard of law in the Korean enterprise and in the setting up of an international army in Europe is further evidence that our State Department has long since repudiated any serious respect for law and justice.”)

Tillis could hardly compete, but neither wanted nor needed to. On his side: a metahuman command of talking points. At the final debate, as in every debate, he packed at least two digs at Hagan into every answer. Hagan and Obama were, he said, “destroying America.” When asked how he’d replace Obamacare, he promised he “wouldn’t follow Kay Hagan’s failure of Obamacare, which put 2.5 million people out of work.”

Monday night’s moderator did not challenge the “2.5 million” line, which wasn’t really true at all. But neither did the other candidates, who sprained their joints trying to find the space to Tillis’ right. The best Mark Harris, the pastor-turned-candidate, could do was shame Tillis for saying that the state’s 2012 gay marriage ban—put on the ballot after Tillis marshaled it through the House—would be repealed in 20 years.

“What I said was a warning,” Tillis told reporters after the debate. “It wasn’t a prediction.”

The best Brannon could do, apart from demonstrating his superior knowledge of what happened in 1787, was cite a radio ad (paid for by the Democrats) in which Tillis called the Affordable Care Act “a great idea that can’t be paid for.” Hagan’s point: Hey, even Tillis didn’t disagree with the goals of the law.  

“It doesn’t sound like Kay Hagan or Greg Brannon get my sarcasm,” Tillis told me.

There was really no way to tell. After Monday’s debate, Tillis and Harris hung around to talk to reporters. The next day, Tillis went on a two-day public tour with the Chamber of Commerce, and a call to Harris’ campaign found a volunteer happy to say where the candidate was heading next.

Brannon was not so easy to reach. When the debate ended, he retreated to a green room with his aides, huddling for about 20 minutes before darting back to his hospital. His spokesman apologized to reporters and collected phone numbers where the candidate could call them. The calls never came. The next morning, calls and texts to the spokesman went to voicemail and—eventually—bounced off a full mailbox.

While they did, Tillis was replacing McCrory at the podium, under the steel sign, saying everything he needed to say. Hagan had voted “96 percent of the time with President Obama,” which meant she wasn’t what North Carolina deserved—“a senator that believes in America, that believes in American exceptionalism.” Sure, there were protests of the Republican legislature. Check the record, check the unemployment number: The protesters were wrong. “Our conservative revolution—the liberals hated it, the conservatives loved it.”

So the press returned to McCrory: Why, as the leader of the party, did he weigh in on this race and stop pretending he was neutral?

“I was being asked by a lot of people,” he said. “That’s the kind of leader I am—I tell people where I stand on an issue.”

Another reporter asked if McCrory had alienated the Tea Party—he blew the question off with a well-scripted attack on Hagan. The scrum broke up, and McCrory took a few questions about how the state was preparing for a hurricane, until another reporter asked if the primary was still splitting the party.

“I think I’ve answered that question,” said McCrory. In word and deed, he had.

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