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Why North Carolina’s Senate primary doesn’t tell us much about the tea party’s strength

Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in North Carolina is widely viewed as the first big showdown of the year between the GOP’s tea party and establishment wings, a battle with huge implications for not only who will take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the fall but also for the future of the GOP heading into 2016.

But when it comes to how much the two factions have spent on the race, it's not been much of a contest.

Tea party groups have reported spending less than $200,000 on yards signs, phone banks and online ads to boost Greg Brannon, an obstetrician, who is one of seven candidates vying against state House Speaker Thom Tillis for the GOP Senate nomination, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation. Pastor Mark Harris, another candidate aligned with the tea party wing, has not seen any independent spending on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Tillis has been lifted by nearly $2.5 million in television ads and mailers paid for by groups such as American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, according to campaign finance reports and public filings with local TV stations. Among the groups backing him is Grow NC Strong, a super PAC financed by Tillis supporters, which has run radio ads touting his candidacy.

The lopsided spending underscores the financial might of establishment GOP groups that have rallied around candidates like Tillis this year. (American Crossroads raised $5 million in March, a sharp upswing after a lackluster fundraising stretch last year.) But the imbalance also spotlights the small sums that well-funded tea party groups are investing in direct campaigning for candidates, as The Washington Post reported last month. In lieu of spending on candidates and campaigns, these groups are plowing most of their money into overhead costs such as consulting and fundraising.

The spending by tea party organizations is not the only way to measure the movement's influence on the North Carolina race, of course. Brannon got a big lift Monday from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party darling who campaigned with the obstetrician and dubbed him a “dragon slayer.” Harris has the support of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. (Tillis, meanwhile, has been backed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.)

But the spending reports do show how hard it is has been for the tea party candidates to cut through the noise in a race that has been dominated by outside spending. Already, more than $18 million has been plowed into television airtime, according to public filings with local stations. And, 90 percent of all TV ads in the race have been paid for by outside interest groups, according to a recent report by the Wesleyan Media Project.

The tea party organizations are not among them, having put their money into less expensive voter outreach.

The biggest spender for Brannon has been FreedomWorks, which reported $115,000 worth of independent expenditures on items such as door hangers and online ads. Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund spent about $40,000 on direct mail and robo-calls, according to FEC reports.

Tillis has not gone unscathed, however. As Hagan’s expected challenger, he has already taken shots from Democratic groups Senate Majority PAC and Patriot Majority, which have spent $3.2 million producing and running television ads attacking him, according to campaign finance reports.

And last week, Hagan’s campaign began sending mailers statewide saying Tillis once called President Obama’s health-care law “a great idea,” an effort to turn off GOP voters to his candidacy.

The crossfire puts North Carolina on track to be one of the most expensive races of the election cycle. Much of that money has been spent by conservative groups such as American for Prosperity, which has been pounding Hagan with ads.

If Tillis is forced into a July runoff -- that would happen if he took less than 40 percent of the vote today -- he and his allies will have to spend the next few months fighting a two-front war, further deluging North Carolina residents with even more campaign ads.

Reid Wilson contributed to this report.