Five Lessons From Yesterday’s Republican Primaries

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 7 2014 8:52 AM

Five Lessons From Yesterday’s Republican Primaries

478166031-rep-walter-jones-speaks-during-a-press-conference-on-u
Walter Jones' primary victory Monday night shows that there's still a place in the GOP for pacifism.

Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

1) The "establishment" is spending money early, and winning. Josh Kraushaar, who's always got the first comment from the behind-the-scenes victors, reports that American Crossroads polled in North Carolina before jumping in. Five months ago Speaker of the House Thom Tillis only had 16 percent name recognition statewide. (Pretty weak for a guy who works in the state's most populous county and lives in the second-most.) American Crossroads responded by slathering TV screens with $1.6 million in pro-Tillis ads. The Chamber of Commerce jumped in, too. This is basically what Karl Rove had told donors he'd do last year, and hey, it's working. It helps if the establishment only needs to fend off stunt candidates, but the early money is meant to scare off the unelectable candidates who might break out in a primary. Though it is not all roses for the establishment:

2) Immigration can still rile up the Republican base. Before the polls closed yesterday, I'd been talking to a Republican aide in the House who was optimistic about Rep. Renee Ellmers' primary. Ellmers was going to win, obviously, but what mattered was whether she beat her challenger by a landslide. The Beltway media had noticed Ellmers' struggle with the right—with radio host Laura Ingraham especially—ever since she got on board with the GOP's amorphous immigration agenda. If Ellmers glided, it would prove that the base was not all that exercised about the issue.

She didn't glide. Ellmers won 58.8 percent of the vote to 41.2 percent for Frank Roche, an activist who raised less than $24,000. Had some national Tea Party groups bullied into the race, Ellmers might well have lost. Which brings me to this:

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3) Some national "Tea Party" groups are fading—and it's their own fault. Here we can distinguish between two types of Tea Party organizations, hence the scare quotes. The Tea Party Leadership Fund (TPLF), basically a buck-raking operation, spent 2014 telling gullible conservative donors that it could take out John Boehner. Boehner won renomination by 47 points. FreedomWorks was not, in 2010 or 2012, a shadow organization like the TPLF, but it's having a rotten year. It endorses candidates and then fails to get behind them. It endorsed Katrina Pierson, who lost an underfunded race in Texas, and it lost two more races last night—state Rep. Matt Lynch's congressional primary challenge in Ohio, and Dr. Greg Brannon's attempt to force a runoff in North Carolina's Senate race. At some point, activists might wonder if FreedomWorks is spending too much time promoting its president's books and too little time sending reinforcements into the states.

But you can't wag the finger at a couple of faltering activists and say "the Tea Party's done!" Local Tea Party groups are doing better—the Ohio Citizens PAC, which grew out of Tea Party groups that had tangled with the IRS, claimed five victories in state legislative races. As Eliana Johnson points out, the biggest-spending (Senate Conservatives Fund) and most feared (Club for Growth) insurgent groups basically stayed out of the races I mentioned before. They're concentrating more on the open-seat primary in Nebraska and the race against Washington fixture Sen. Thad Cochran. Oh, and besides:

4) The Tea Party has won already. In 2010, Tea Party candidates could run against Republicans who'd voted for TARP (Utah Sen. Bob Bennett) or earmarks (Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski) or who believed that climate change was real (Delaware Rep. Mike Castle). In 2014 the biggest target of the year so far was Thom Tillis, the leader of the ultraconservative North Carolina legislature, elected with the help of Americans for Prosperity's Art Pope—who, following the 2012 elections, is now the state's budget director. The "Tea Party," as seen in the movement's best-funded national organization, had already won in North Carolina and made it a test kitchen for ALEC model legislation. Where, as I asked last week, was the space to the right? There wasn't any. This is why Democrats, who quietly gave up hope of a Republican runoff over the last week, have been trying to remind people that Tillis is perfectly right-wing. That said ...

5) Anti-war conservatives ain't dead yet. This was supposed to be the year Rep. Walter Jones lost—nearly a decade after his Iraq war flip, with years of unhelpful "no" votes on Republican bills behind him. The Emergency Committee for Israel* spent $300,000 on ads that reminded voters, in a district recently redrawn to include less Jones turf, that their congressman voted with the left. The result: Jones' stiffest challenge ever, and a 51–45 win. (A carpetbagging fringe candidate scored the other 4 percent.) As in 2008, the last time he faced a well-enough-funded challenge, Jones held on in the communities around his district's military bases, holding Onslow County (location of Camp Lejune) in a squeaker.

*I initially accidentally left "for Israel" out of the group's name, a mistake I did not make in my previous piece, but one that inspired some fun theories on Twitter.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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