On Tuesday, the first of several GOP Senate primary elections took place. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis cruised to victory, easily clearing the 40 percent mark, winning the nomination and avoiding a runoff. Facing an onslaught of rightwing groups claiming he is insufficiently conservative, he stuck to his message and pulled together a wide array of support from the National Rifle Association to Jeb Bush to American Crossroads. Running as a staunch and accomplished conservative, Tillis showed that holding office need not be a negative for a Republican. He ran an impressive and disciplined campaign. As one local news outlet put it, “Tillis managed to emerge from the heap with his financial advantage. Unlike the other candidates, Tillis was able to reach a broad swath of voters with a million-dollar television advertising campaign and a $2.4 million boost from his allies, including two super PACs. His fundraising prowess and experience as a top lawmaker gave him an electability quality that helped sway Republican voters.”
If you didn’t know better, you might think Tillis is the incumbent, not Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who is a lackluster candidate. He is a good speaker and has been able to project solidness and authority. But it is Hagan’s record, not charisma deficit, that may prove her undoing. Tillis in his acceptance speech put the focus on his opponent, painting her a stooge of the liberal president. He vowed to be an “independent thinker,” a dig at Hagan, whom he claims votes with the president and Democratic leadership 96 percent of the time. He told the crowd, “Senator Hagan has supported President Obama’s failed agenda every step of the way, and her liberal voting record is simply out of touch with North Carolina. Unlike Senator Hagan, I will work across party lines to pass an agenda focused on generating growth and opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses, just as I’ve done here in North Carolina. As Senator Hagan runs away from her partisan liberal record, I’m proud to run on my record of making North Carolina competitive in a 21st century economy by reforming a broken tax code, providing regulatory relief to create better jobs, and controlling runaway spending.” That, in a nutshell, is his message. Not willing to call the race a slam dunk, Republican insiders nevertheless are increasingly confident that Tillis can win. Both sides will spend lavishly on the race. For running a skilled primary race, uniting his party and showing other conservatives how to run a disciplined center-right campaign, Tillis deserves credit. He demonstrated that aside from style and rhetoric there isn’t much difference between “establishment” conservatives and tea party conservatives. For all that we can say, well done Mr. Tillis.