Tea party members in North Carolina might give up on national races
May 7th, 2014
04:58 PM ET
9 years ago

Tea party members in North Carolina might give up on national races

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.

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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.

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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.

GOP establishment 1, tea party 0 after North Carolina Senate primary

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.

Complete coverage of the 2014 midterm elections

Related: Clay Aiken has slim edge in North Carolina primary

Filed under: 2014 • North Carolina • Tea Party • Tea Party movement
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. sam west

    Outcome makes it clear that we have no voice. I will not vote in November.

    May 7, 2014 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  2. ThinkAgain: Don't like Congress? Get rid of the repub/tea bag majority.

    “Washington is very tough. We fight the GOP,” Bilello said. “We just constantly fight the Republicans.”

    The answer is simple: The tea party should split and form their own national party.

    May 7, 2014 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  3. king

    i cannot stand the establishment, because they suck up to the tea party too much. the tea party only came to power when the first black president came on the seen. i've been lessening to politics for a while now and i never heard of tea party until Obama got the presidency. their only job was to kill everything he does, or tries, even though doing so would bring the country to its knees. ive never seen such disorder and mayhem in the congress pushed by the tea party. their only means to get elected is to stop the president agenda, and they will wear that on their chess with pride. these folks will go down in history of being the only group that was formed to take a presidency down, no matter what. the repubs establishment went along with them like blind puppies. and the american people grew backward all through that time.

    May 7, 2014 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  4. Sniffit

    "Republicans avoided a major headache on Tuesday night when Thom Tillis, the North Carolina house speaker and establishment favorite, won the Republican Senate nomination outright, dodging a protracted summer runoff fight against a grassroots-backed opponent."

    What's interesting is that you couldn't slide a piece of paper between Tillis and his Teatroll opponent's agenda. The only reason they "avoided a headache' is because the MSM is pretending that the "establishment" GOP is somehow vastly different than the Teatrolls, when in reality the "establishment" GOP helped fund, encourage, organize, train and create Astroturf Frankenstein as their political cover for moving way way way further to the right than they've ever been. There's no "establishment" about it. This isn't your father's GOP. This isn't your father's father's GOP. This is the most radicalized right-wing extremist GOP we've seen in well over 5-6 decades. They are manufacturing the "GOP establishment v. Teatroll" narrative as their way of pivoting back to SEEMING or creating the APPEARANCE of having moderated their 6+ years of radicalized ideological temper tantrums, but the reality is that the people the MSM is calling "establishment" are just as radicalized and are just as willing to pander to the radicals as the radicals themselves. They are simply polished turds instead of messy ones. Make no mistake: the radicalization and massive rightward exodus is a "new normal" for the entirety of the conservative movement. There is no "establishment" left in terms of what was their traditional ideology and behavior throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is simply radicals who are part of the party's power structure and radicals who aren't.

    May 7, 2014 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  5. Lynda/Minnesota

    "And if the tea party has more influence at the local level, they hope their success trickles up ... "

    Trickles up? No doubt a TeaPer joke waiting to happen ...

    May 7, 2014 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  6. Gurgyl

    GOP is pretty much gone to dogs, true even in NC, LA, TX etc.

    May 7, 2014 05:51 pm at 5:51 pm |
  7. Uhhuh

    And if the tea party has more influence at the local level, they hope their success trickles up.


    That kind of crap only runs downhill

    May 7, 2014 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  8. barryinlasvegas

    It is, but you have to back the right candidate. Ask the Tea Party in Nevada who blew a great chance of beating Harry Reid because they were successful in knocking out a good candidate and had Sharon Angle as their nominee.

    May 7, 2014 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  9. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Sounds like the Koch brothers would prefer to waste,er, spend their money on someone else.

    May 7, 2014 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  10. rs

    The civil war just turned ugly for the TEA Party. Probably a good thing for the GOP. Now, if the GOP were to stop being so closely aligned with the TEA Party's positions, we might see some kind of progress in bringing the GOP into this century.

    May 7, 2014 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  11. don in albuquerque

    saam west

    Good start.

    May 7, 2014 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  12. Silence DoGood

    Oh no – don't give up on the big races Tea Party! Go for it! Run the most extreme wacky "pure" candidates for everything. And tell them to pontificate on every little thought and conspiracy that pops into their heads. The country needs to see who the GOP is cozy with. Liberals everywhere and comedians alike will thank you.

    May 7, 2014 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  13. Rick McDaniel

    The truth is.........can be America even be saved........or has the corruption and perverting of America, gone so far, that America is simply LOST?

    May 7, 2014 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  14. Teresa wiggins

    is the rebranding of the Republican Party? Pretend there is a rif between the two groups? If I remover correctly, the plan is to not change principles and values but change the presentation. the stragedy, become a wolf in sheep clothing. What is the definition of a Establishment Republican? We have a Republican dominated Congress, no meaningful legislation have come from that body in six years. The only thing the majority speaker have been able to accomplish is investigating the IRs for doing their job, determining if I donate to an orginazation and expect to deduct the donation from my gross income as a tax payer the organization is indeed a legitimate organization. Bengazhi is the only other thing he have not been told to walk back on the next. Oh yea and President Obama is responsible for the sun rising in the east and going down in the west. This president have been used as a red flag in a bull ring for 6 years, the plan will not change, they have the same groups sponsoring the Establishment republicans that started the tea party and dumped money in the states to win governorships , take control of the state houses etc. it does not matter what the populous decide with establishment republicans, if I remember correctly the challenge from crossroads was, give me people that are electable,controllable, that can keep their mouth shut until after we get them elected. It does not matter if you are on the right or left side of the boat we are all on it together. The Democratic Party present themselves as school children being bullied on the playground. Instead of staying in the fight they run home, what do they expect their base to do, they are not even in the fight. It's getting difficult to identify who is who. There once were statesman and women in politics. They worked deals, presented a united front to the rest of the country and the world. Now our government function like a third world country. It is sad that people seem to be hell bent on destroying the land of the free and the home of the brave. Simply because money can do that.

    May 7, 2014 07:59 pm at 7:59 pm |
  15. Thomas

    Israeli spying on US at 'alarming level'
    Israel spies on the United States more than any other ally does and these activities have reached an alarming level, y. The main targets are US industrial and technical secrets,.

    May 7, 2014 08:20 pm at 8:20 pm |
  16. S. B. Stein

    @Sam West - If you don't like the candidates, then write yourself in for office. There is no excuse to for not voting.

    May 7, 2014 08:54 pm at 8:54 pm |
  17. jeff

    Keep looking for your conservative messiah Tea Party.

    May 7, 2014 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
  18. jeff

    What exactly is the "establishment?" If the the "establishment" the two party system of the political process and those who gain the most votes wins, that's the establishment. Let's change the system, if it is so bad.

    May 7, 2014 09:38 pm at 9:38 pm |
  19. ja

    Tea party aka modern day KKK, where we're they during the previous administrations, specifically the bush years, heads in the sand

    May 8, 2014 01:04 am at 1:04 am |
  20. Wilson

    " i've been lessening to politics for a while now and i never heard of tea party until Obama got the presidency. their only job was to kill everything he does, or tries, even though doing so would bring the country to its knees."....
    They are doing the job they were elected for. They only try to kill the things he does that are not good for the country, which happens to be most things. His definition of "forward" is not a good direction for the country. The people that try to justify bad policies by saying "join the 21st century" or "this is no longer the 1950s" sound so ignorant. Denigrating people just because they don't agree with you shows your ignorance. There has been very little that this administration has done that many people think is good for the country.

    May 8, 2014 03:47 am at 3:47 am |