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What North Carolina's establishment Republicans really won

The GOP establishment may have gotten the candidate they wanted, but how keen is North Carolina on the establishment?
NC Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, speaks with volunteers at the Tillis for US Senate Campaign Headquarters in Cornelius, N.C., May 4, 2014.
NC Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, speaks with volunteers at the Tillis for US Senate Campaign Headquarters in Cornelius, N.C., May 4, 2014.

The so-called Republican establishment got the candidate they want to run against North Carolina’s Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in Tuesday’s GOP primary. But, the establishment challenger may have as much trouble as the Tea Party challenger would have had in the general election. Like most races, it’s more complicated.

Sure, Hagan is at the top of the list of Democrats that Republicans want to take down. And Republican Speaker of the State House Thom Tillis’ edging out Tea Party newcomer Greg Brannon seems like a win, especially given the statements by Brannon. He is a doctor who has compared food stamps to slavery and said he is against public education. It’s no wonder establishment Republicans didn’t want him.

Brannon could have become the next Todd Aiken which led to Sen. Claire McCaskills re-election. But Republicans may find that the candidate they got isn’t much better. As some political analysts see it, the problem with the Tea Party candidate was he had never held office. But the problem with Tillis could be that he actually has.

Tillis became Speaker of the North Carolina House after the Tea Party sweep in 2010. Under Tillis’ leadership, Republicans have gone through a Republican legislative wish-list that North Carolina conservatives have longed for.

As a matter of fact, this is the first time that both houses have been controlled by Republicans in 140 years. Democratic Gov. Bev Purdue used veto-after-veto to try and stop or at least slow down the Republican legislative binge and, in many cases, her vetoes were overridden. When she declined to run for re-election in 2012 and Republican Pat McCrory was elected, there was no stopping the legislature.

Under Tillis, the GOP passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a repeal of the estate tax, laws mandating a photo ID for voting, new abortion restrictions, funding for vouchers and charter schools, looser restrictions for fracking and even cuts to unemployment insurance. Republicans have also declined to take the Obamacare Medicaid expansion and refused to set up a state exchange for the Affordable Care Act. It was a Republican dream.

But then small gatherings began on Mondays at the State capital. The protests grew to the weekly Moral Monday protests that sometimes drew crowds of thousands protesting everything from voting restrictions to women’s rights. Demonstrators included a diverse mix of young and old alike -- and of all races-- pushing back on the legislature and blaming Thom Tillis. The protests attracted coverage in every TV market in North Carolina and ultimately fired up churches and organizers to help register people to vote.

Tillis may have been the ideal establishment Republican, but now he is the face of the establishment in North Carolina -- and that means the establishment is attached to the unpopular legislative agenda. The North Carolina General Assembly has an approval rating at 26%. Tillis doesn’t do much better with a favorable score of just 26%, according to a poll by Elon University’s Political Scientist Department.

Then there is Obamacare. Republicans have been most excited about using Sen. Hagan’s vote for the ACA against her in November, and last year that seemed like a strong argument. Though as the national ACA website began to work and millions got health care, the tide shifted in North Carolina.

A Kaiser/New York Times poll released at the end of April shows a majority in North Carolina now favor keeping Obamacare and “fixing it,” as well as expanding Medicaid in North Carolina.

That may not be such a bad thing, but because Tillis had a strong Tea Party challenger, his campaign had to run this radio ad:

Male Announcer: Tillis has a proven record fighting against Obamacare.

Female Announcer: Tillis stopped Obamacare's Medicaid expansion cold. It's not happening in North Carolina and it's because of Thom Tillis. He led the conservative revolution in Raleigh.

A Hagan spokesperson told Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, "Tillis will have to answer for his bragging about rejecting health care for 500,000 North Carolinans, a move that also cost health care providers millions, in particular those in rural areas."

But what about turnout? This Tuesday was supposed to be big for Republicans. They had a real choice in the Senate race as well as a competitive campaign for the North Carolina Supreme Court. Hagan had a weak opponent in her primary and there wasn’t much to get Democrats out to vote. Still, 479 942 Democrats voted in the Democratic primary, barely behind the 486,782 that voted in the Republican primary. Comparing that to 2010 tells another story.

In 2010, Republicans were rabid at the polls against and the Tea Party was sweeping through the South. Republican Sen. Richard Burr only got 297,993 out of 371,968 votes. More than a 100,000 more Republicans turned out this time.But Democrats also gained 55,000 more than in 2010, in what was supposed to be an off year.

In an interviewed that aired Thursday on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told NBC’s Chuck Todd that voter registration is going well in North Carolina. This may be the first sign of that. To be fair, there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in North Carolina, but this is pretty close to recent polls showing Hagan and Tillis virtually tied in the polls and Hagan hasn’t really been running a campaign against Tillis’ record, which her campaign began on primary day.

Hagan’s campaign released a video of Tillis talking about a “divide and conquer” strategy when it comes to people who get some sort of government assistance. So the establishment may have gotten the candidate they wanted, but how keen is North Carolina on the establishment?