If you want a clear picture of the Tea Party's lasting victory, look to North Carolina and the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. It can be viewed as a clash of factions—social conservatives represented by Mark Harris, libertarians represented by Dr. Greg Brannon, the establishment represented by Thom Tillis, the state speaker of the House. But as Ashley Parker wrote in a profile of the race, Tillis is perfectly right-wing, and presided over what he calls a "conservative revolution" of legislation to roll back some voting rights, block Medicaid expansion, end the earned income tax credit, and end long-term unemployment insurance.
Yet Tillis can't break out of the pack. He's consistently ahead of his opponents, but only just, and it's likely that one of them—probably Brannon—will force him into a runoff. What can distinguish him from the field? We got an answer in tonight's (largely rote) televised primary debate, after a voter asked the candidates whether they'd stand for the Second Amendment rights of felons or the mentally ill.
The question went first to Heather Grant, an Army nurse and first-time candidate. She drew the line at restoring rights for felons, but: "When you talk about mentally ill, you need to look at the definition. Some people are using that definition to talk about our PTSD experenced veterans, and those are not people we should be telling don't have the right to own a weapon."
Brannon was next, and he started with a short recapitulation of his strict constructionist views. The feds, generally, needed to stay away from these sorts of issues; they were up to the states. But there were risks. "I give a lovely lady some medicine for postpartum depression, like our troops coming back home," he said. "We're having the federal government decide that that one-week episode of her life will stop her from a God-given natural right to self-defense? That's why it's important to understand the federal role, the state role, and the local role."
Tillis went next, and for the first time in the 60-minute debate, he criticized Brannon from the left. "Violent felons and people with mental health problems need to be rehabilitated, and they need help," he said. "You can't put a gun in the hand of someone who represents a danger to themself or to society. I understand the concept Dr. Brannon said in his words about the Second Amendment, but folks, this is about being practical."
How does that play in a Republican primary?