Establishment Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief tonight. The Associated Press declared Thom Tillis the victor in North Carolina's GOP Senate primary, defeating tea party firebrand Greg Brannon and conservative pastor Mark Harris. More importantly, by taking more than 40% of the vote, Tillis avoids a runoff, which would have meant another six weeks of GOP infighting before the party could move on to the general election against Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in this year's midterms.
It was primary day in North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio yesterday and looking over the results, the headlines are correct: establishment-backed Republicans prevailed in nearly all the high-profile contests, including the closely watched GOP Senate primary in North Carolina. That said, let's not miss the forest for the trees.
In all three states, there were plenty of races pitting Republican incumbents or establishment-backed newcomers against far-right Tea Partiers, and for the most part, the extremists came up empty.
Tillis won big in North Carolina, and in the same state, Reps. Renee Ellmers and Walter Jones also prevailed in their Republican primaries. In Ohio, House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Dave Joyce both faced far-right rivals, and the congressmen won both races. All told FreedomWorks keeps endorsing primary challengers, and so far this year, has lost every time.
This is, of course, largely the opposite of what we saw in 2010 and 2012, when there weren't just close contests involving GOP incumbents and establishment-backed candidates, but Tea Partiers actually won many key contests. It's therefore tempting to look at yesterday's results as evidence that the Republican establishment has reasserted itself as the dominant electoral force, pushing the far-right fringe to the side. Indeed, it's not yesterday -- the pattern holds up in states like Texas, South Carolina, and Kentucky, too.
But the differences between 2014 and the last couple of cycles matter.
When GOP incumbents and establishment-backed candidates stumbled in 2010 and 2012, some of them were actually fairly mainstream, at least by contemporary standards. When Delaware's Mike Castle and Indiana's Dick Lugar lost tough primary fights in their respective cycles, the Republican's conservative base really was rejecting center-right candidates for ideologues more in line with right-wing activists.
But in 2014, the line between the Tea Partiers' preferred candidates and the establishment's preferred candidates has blurred. Republican primary voters weren't asked to choose between moderates and conservatives; they were given a choice between far-right candidates and very far-right candidates.
North Carolina's Tillis, for example, would immediately become one of the Senate most right-wing members if elected, but in his primary, he was nevertheless perceived as the "mainstream" GOP candidate backed by the party establishment. What was once the fringe element of the party is now simply the party itself.
Extremists may be frustrated with the results, but they can take solace in knowing they're losing battles after already having won the war -- the already conservative Republican Party has moved even further to the right, with the establishment candidates lining up quite nicely on the ideological scale with the more radical candidates of the very recent past.