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Establishment GOP vs. tea party battle far from over

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 7:30 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Establishment Republicans avoided costly runoff with tea party opponent in N.C.
  • Tea party Senate candidates failed in general election against Democrats
  • More establishment vs. tea party contests loom over the next five weeks

Washington (CNN) -- Round One is done but this year's electoral fight between the GOP establishment and the tea party movement is far from over.

Moderates scored a victory on Tuesday in North Carolina's Republican Senate primary when state House Speaker Thom Tillis topped 40% of the vote, avoiding a runoff in July.

5 takeaways from N.C. primaries

Tillis beat a bunch of more conservative candidates for the chance to face off this November against first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is considered very vulnerable in the general election.

Flipping her seat and five others held by Democrats would give Republicans control of the Senate.

"There are plenty of fights still to come, and it's too early to proclaim a winner and a loser. But it's already clear that the pragmatist conservatives have stopped the anti-establishment's electoral momentum," writes Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report.

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Victories by more moderate mainstream candidates improve the GOP's odds of recapturing the Senate. Democrats hold a 55-45 majority but are defending 21 of the 36 seats up this year. Half of those Democratic seats are in red or purple states, like North Carolina.

Mainstream strikes back

Since the birth of the tea party movement in 2009, primary challenges from the right have produced major headlines and headaches for the GOP and hurt the party's chances of recapturing the Senate in the past two election cycles.

Candidates backed by the tea party and other grass-roots conservatives effectively cost the GOP five winnable Senate elections in 2010 and 2012 in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Indiana and Missouri.

GOP establishment 1, tea party 0 after early primary test

This time, mainstream Republicans don't want another sequel.

In North Carolina, Tillis grabbed last-minute endorsements from two high-profile Republicans: 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 White House hopeful.

More importantly, while none of the candidates in the GOP primary, including Tillis, raised or spent a lot of money, the state House speaker won the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads. Those outside groups spent $2.6 million combined to run ads in favor of the candidate.

That spending dwarfed money shelled out by outside conservative groups that backed Greg Brannon, a first time candidate endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul, who finished second in the Senate primary.

What's at stake in 2014?

"Last night was a victory for Republicans who believe we should nominate the most conservative candidate who can win in November versus the D.C. interest groups who believe the weaker the Republican Party is, the more powerful they are," said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, who served as National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director the past two election cycles.

Was North Carolina a true test?

But some conservative strategists say the showdown in North Carolina was anything but a fair fight.

"When the establishment candidate is the only player on the field actually spending significant money and also runs as conservative, they have an easy path to victory," Daniel Horwitz, policy director for the Madison Project, told CNN.

"However, you can only fool the people some of the time and eventually they will have to vouch for their support of amnesty, debt ceiling increases, tweaking Obamacare, and corporate welfare. No degree of cash advantage can sell that pig to primary voters," he said.

Since a number of influential tea party groups and conservative organizations stayed on the sidelines in North Carolina, some strategists say the contest was not a true indicator in the fight between the establishment and the grassroots movement.

"The breathless declarations on the death of the Tea Party are so premature it's laughable. The tea party was split in NC (or stayed out entirely). Any one pointing to these elections as indicative doesn't understand the indicators of a true tea party versus establishment contest," wrote conservative pollster Chris Wilson.

More battles ahead

There are primary elections virtually every Tuesday over the next five weeks, so there are more skirmishes to come.

Key races to watch in 2014

May 13: Next Tuesday, the tea party could score what could end up being its only win in Senate primary showdowns this year.

Conservative Ben Sasse of Nebraska, president of Midland University, has been showered with support and endorsements recently from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as the backing of FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Club for Growth.

Some polling suggests that Sasse is tied with Shane Osborn, the former state treasurer who's considered the establishment favorite.

But on the same day, seven-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is expected to easily win the GOP Senate nomination in West Virginia, where the party hopes to snatch the seat long held by retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Capito is considered a moderate, and while some conservative groups criticized her early in her bid, she's faced no serious opposition from the right for the nomination.

But a tea party-backed candidate might win the GOP nomination in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, the House seat that Capito has held for seven terms.

May 20: A week later, the action moves to Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell faces a challenge, and Georgia, where there's a wide open fight to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

McConnell is challenged by businessman Matt Bevin, who enjoys strong support from many tea party groups and influential conservative organizations.

While the race has seen big spending by the campaigns and outside groups, the five-term McConnell is expected to cruise to renomination. But he faces a serious challenge in November from rising Democratic star Alison Lundergan Grimes. Big-name Democrats are already campaigning for her.

In Georgia, Republican Reps. Phil Gingrey, Paul Broun and Jack Kingston, former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, and businessman David Perdue are the major candidates in the race.

Kingston, Perdue and Handel, rather than the more conservative Broun and Gingrey, are considered frontrunners in the contentious Republican primary.

The winner will face Michelle Nunn, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee and daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, a household name in Georgia.

On the same day in Oregon, Portland pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby is considered the frontrunner over more conservative state Rep. Jason Conger in the race for the GOP Senate nomination.

The winner of that contest will run in November against first-term Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who Republicans think might be vulnerable if 2014 turns into a wave year for the GOP.

And in Idaho, there's a high-profile incumbent-vs.-tea party showdown in the House, where eight-term Rep. Mike Simpson faces a serious primary challenge from conservative favorite Bryan Smith.

June 3: Two weeks later, the establishment-vs.-tea party contest shifts to Mississippi, which is among eight states holding primaries that day.

Six-term Sen. Thad Cochran is facing a serious challenge from state lawmaker Chris McDaniel in Mississippi. Private polling shows Cochran with a comfortable lead, but outside establishment groups are taking nothing for granted.

Fight is far from over

The Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests, says it's going up on television starting Wednesday with a very large ad buy in two Senate contests and 11 House races, which include some key establishment vs. tea party primary showdowns.

While mainstream candidates appear to have the upper hand in most of these upcoming showdowns, tea party leaders say don't count them out.

In the days ahead, we're supporting some great candidates in competitive primaries," Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund spokesman Kevin Broughton told CNN.

"In my home state of Mississippi, there's a war going on; Chris McDaniel is poised to take down a six-term incumbent U.S. senator. I haven't seen such a hotly contested primary in 20 years," he said.

Even if the establishment rolls to victory after victory in this year's primaries, a top analyst says this battle is far from over.

"No matter the wins and losses in the GOP 'civil war' this year, don't expect this to be the end of that fight. The party remains deeply divided, and both sides have the resources and commitment needed to take the fight into 2015 and 2016. The war is likely to get messier and the division more consequential before the two sides look for ways to bridge their differences. That should please Democrats," Rothenberg wrote.

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