The Empire Strikes Back

Early returns bode well for mainstream Republicans

The Republican Establishment’s bid to take back the party in 2014 is off to a sparkling start. In the first big test of a major campaign against Tea Party candidates before November’s election, mainstream Republicans thumped a series of insurgent challengers on May 6 in North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana.

In the day’s marquee matchup, North Carolina house speaker Thom Tillis won the GOP’s Senate nomination, beating a libertarian doctor and a Baptist pastor whose support for the state’s same-sex-marriage ban earned accolades from social conservatives. By capturing more than 40% of the vote in a field of eight candidates, Tillis sidestepped a July runoff and will be able to direct all his resources toward the November race against Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, whose vulnerable seat is a top target in the Republicans’ quest to regain the upper chamber this fall.

Tillis was buoyed by $10 million in television ads from national groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, which launched a costly effort to shape the outcome of GOP primary contests. The spending comes just months after Tea Party leaders in Congress forced an unpopular government shutdown that enraged the GOP’s moderate supporters.

“We engaged early and worked closely with other center-right groups to help Tillis,” said American Crossroads president Steven Law.

Other Establishment Republicans also prevailed in early tests. Elsewhere in North Carolina, Representative Renee Ellmers, a favorite of the House GOP leadership, dispatched a challenger who decried Ellmers’ support for immigration reform. In Ohio, freshman Representative David Joyce fended off a challenger who assailed him as too liberal and earned the backing of national Tea Party groups. And in Indiana, incumbent Representative Susan Brooks steamrolled a weak Tea Party challenge spurred by her votes during the shutdown to reopen the government and lift the debt limit.

A series of tougher battles loom for the Establishment army, including a May 20 House race in Idaho and a June 3 Senate primary in Mississippi–both of which pit business-friendly groups like the Chamber of Commerce against well-funded national conservative organizations like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

But the opening skirmishes are a sign that party elders have a much better chance of prevailing than they did in recent congressional elections. With a few exceptions, the Tea Party’s plans to unseat vulnerable Senate Republicans have been hampered by insufficient fundraising and unforced errors.

“They’ve run weaker candidates,” says Scott Reed, chief political strategist for the Chamber of Commerce. “They’ve been all talk and very little action.”

This appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of TIME.
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