House Speaker John Boehner won't lose his spot on the ballot to a Tea Party guy who campaigned on a "boner" joke. Thom Tillis, the establishment's favorite conservative candidate to challenge North Carolina's Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, avoided a run-off election against two other conservative challengers who think he's not far-right enough. And all six of Indiana's nine incumbent representatives facing primary challenges survived the vote and will earn their party's nod for November.
Tuesday's results, the narrative went, were a chance for the Tea Party to demonstrate that it still wields strong influence on the Republican Party. But in every race where a Tea Party-approved challengers attempted to make that point, they failed. So today's big midterm story is all about how the establishment is winning. But it's also about how the GOP's early successes demonstrate the establishment's ability to cannibalize what the Tea Party did well, while attempting to leave behind the ghost of Todd Akin.
Everyone, rightly so, will be talking about one North Carolina race in particular, how Tillis's success demonstrates the establishment's early midterm victory over a handful of less polished and more conservative candidates. Tillis's primary campaign quickly became important to GOP supporters for several reasons, attracting a lot of money and high-level endorsements. So here's what else his win — along with the others on Tuesday — tells us.
Democrats Can't Depend on Unelectable GOP Candidates Anymore
Tillis will now challenge Hagan for her Senate seat, in a year where Republicans believe they will be able to take the six seats needed to gain a majority. As the Atlantic's Molly Ball put it this morning, "If Hagan had a choice, she would surely prefer to face anyone but Tillis." That's because Tillis is very, very electable. Democrats who are hoping that Republican voters will have to choose between a loopy Tea Party candidate with extreme viewpoints and an establishment-backed moderate could find themselves more and more out of luck.
As the Speaker of the State House, Tillis led legislators through a marathon of conservative fiscal and social legislation that transformed the laws on North Carolina's books. They slashed support systems for low income residents. They crystalized the state's ban on gay marriage. They pushed through some of the strictest voting laws in the country, laws that went into effect for the first time on Tuesday. Even before Tuesday's results, Slate's Dave Weigel called Tillis "the best example of how the Republican Party’s drive to the right has robbed space from Tea Party challengers."
The GOP Will try to Repeat These Steps in 2016
Thanks to a number of high-level endorsements, some writers floated the idea that the North Carolina primaries were really a proxy war for the fight for the 2016 nomination. In Tillis's corner was Jeb Bush, who both by name and by manner is the embodiment of the Republican establishment. In challenger Greg Brannon's corner was Rand Paul, repping the libertarian wing of the party and the Paulites' best hope to gain a presidential nomination in this, and not a parallel, universe. And in Mark Harris's corner, Mike Huckabee. He was the Religious Right-style candidate. Although Tuesday's results are criminally early for any sort of serious 2016 analysis, it's more than plausible that the GOP will watch how their new, aggressive approach to weeding out unelectable challengers fares in the elections. If it works, or if the GOP gains enough seats to claim victory, they'll be almost certain to try the same pitch again in 2016.
Clay Aiken Might Actually End Up in the November Election
The novelty candidate with the most success on Tuesday is actually a Democrat. Clay Aiken, the reality show singer, is leading in a still too-close-to-call primary. His lead is by a margin of a few hundred votes, meaning that the AP and others have yet to call the race. But as of now, he's leading with a vote count that's just above North Carolina's 40 percent threshold required to avoid a run-off election in July. That's despite being outspent by his main challenger, former state Commerce secretary Keith Crisco.
Whether Crisco or Aiken ends up on the ballot might not matter a ton in November, however, as any Democrat faces just an outside chance of removing the incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers from office. The district is a solid one for Republicans.
Boehner Should Keep Doing Whiny Impressions of His Colleagues
Ohio voters passed on an opportunity to send a "message" to Boehner during Tuesday's primaries. The speaker easily won his re-election spot on the ballot, despite multiple challenges from the right and his unpopularity among conservatives. Although his recent alienation from conservatives could have consequences down the line — say, in his role as Speaker when the House picks a new leader in January — it's not even clear whether Boehner still wants the job anymore anyway. In any case, let's hope that more Republicans start thinking that moments like Boehner's impression of his own colleagues on immigration don't spell instant political death.
In 2010, the Tea Party gained a lot of influence in the wider GOP because it helped to get them votes, as the latest, freshest incarnation of the desirable "grassroots" conservative votership. Now, the entire GOP is trying to take on the mantle of the underdog, but with polished, well-funded candidates on the ballot instead.