Asheville, North Carolina (CNN) - It was a tough loss.
Tea party members in North Carolina put in countless hours to elect U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon.
When he didn’t get enough votes to force a runoff against establishment GOP opponent Thom Tillis in Tuesday’s primary election, the leaders of one local tea party group wondered if it's worth competing in national races.
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Speaking to 15 Brannon supporters and tea party members at a German/Italian restaurant in the suburbs of Asheville, Jane Bilello looked drained and defeated.
“Washington just might be lost,” she said with heavy shoulders.
“It was all that money from Washington,” one woman sitting at the long table mumbled aloud about a reason for Tillis' win.
In an interview after the results came in, Bilello, chairwoman of the Asheville Tea Party, said she’s not sure tea party candidates can compete against the well-resourced, well-financed machine of the Republican Party.
“Washington is very tough. We fight the GOP,” Bilello said. “We just constantly fight the Republicans.”
Tillis' campaign and groups supporting it spent 10 times what Brannon and his supporters did. Tillis had the financial support of the Chamber of Commerce and former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. While Brannon had the support of the tea party, the FreedomWorks organization and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, it wasn’t enough.
And Tillis’ win has shown establishment Republicans that competing in primaries pays off. It’s a strategy they will continue in numerous other national races in other states’ upcoming primaries.
Establishment Republicans say tea party candidates have cost the party five possible Senate victories in the last two elections.
Tillis will face incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-termer with low approval ratings and one of the most vulnerable of the 21 Senate seats that Democrats are defending this year.
For the GOP, the battle isn’t over ideology or policy, it’s about electability – who is best positioned to win against the Democrat in a general election. And this election, control of the United States Senate is at stake. Republicans need to pick up six seats currently held by Democrats to win the majority.
For the tea party, it’s about principles.
Bilello told the gathering that her organization won’t get behind Tillis. The attendees nodded in agreement.
“These people have to commit to fiscal responsibility, limited government, individual rights and free market principles,” Bilello said in an interview.
After being outraised and outcompeted, the Asheville tea party group is considering redirecting its priorities to focus solely on local races.
“The local races are where it really counts,” Bilello said.
The organization has had more success locally. Bilello said in the last two elections they had more than half the candidates they supported win their races on the local level. On Tuesday, they won a local sheriff and county commissioner race.
With just more than 1,000 members in several counties in the western part of the state, their influence and activism goes further to influence county commission, judges and state House and Senate races.
But the one national tea party group, the Tea Party Patriots, has no plans on switching its focus away from national races.
Kevin Broughton, the groups super PAC, the political arm, said, “No ma’am, absolutely not,” when asked if the organization’s members talked about prioritizing local races.
“We’re not happy with the results by any means, but we’re not discouraged either,” he said, pointing to upcoming Senate Republican primaries in Nebraska and Mississippi that have tea party-endorsed candidates.
But the tea party is made of hundreds of groups that includes local chapters and take no directive from national organizations. So the local North Carolina tea party group can do as they please.
And in North Carolina, local politics have seen a dramatic shift in recent years.
That’s significant because the Tar Heel state has proven that local government institutions can dictate major policy shifts.
In just the past four years since Republicans took over the state legislature, it has been more productive than any legislative session in the state’s memory, Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s political science department, said.
The legislature reformed taxes and made drastic budget cuts by cutting unemployment benefits. The lawmakers also passed drug testing requirements for some welfare recipients , a stringent voter ID law and a ban on same-sex marriage. (As House Speaker, Tillis helped to pass these initiatives but many in the tea party said some of the reforms didn’t go far enough.)
It was “an incredibly aggressive legislative session,” Cooper said.
Several factors helped the legislature switch from blue to red, including national organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the financial support of North Carolina millionaire Art Pope.
In 2010, the group was instrumental in electing Jim Davis to the state Senate, beating a nine-term incumbent Democrat. Davis received the endorsement of local tea party groups, which he told CNN was crucial for his start-up campaign. He won his first race by fewer than 200 votes and went on to sponsor the legislation that requires drug testing for some families receiving welfare.
They helped him win a “critical seat “for a part of the state that many people don’t know exists,” Cooper said.
Tea party support in western North Carolina also helped to elect Chris Whitmire to the N.C. House in 2012. He was one of 40 Republican freshmen – a third of the House – that helped the GOP solidify its hold on state politics.
Whitmire, who represents three rural counties that span 100 miles, told CNN he was outspent 9-1 in his primary, but he edged out his opponent by less than 200 votes.
“I won with the grassroots effort,” Whitmire said.
And if the tea party has more influence at the local level, they hope their success trickles up.
Just minutes after the Republican Senate primary race was called for Tillis, Brannon supporter Robert Malt stood up and said they must demand that the state legislature change the threshold required by candidates to avoid a runoff election from 40% to 50%. Tillis won 45% of the vote.
“We’re making headway it just feels like it’s taking a long time,” Bilello said.