North Carolina, Louisiana And Two GOP Establishments

As many of our readers know, I’m writing a weekly column at the American Spectator these days (here was last week’s offering, on the appointment of Trey Gowdy to lead a Benghazi Select Committee, and here was my April 29 piece, on the salesmanship of the Jindal health care plan). The current edition, which is published today, is on the North Carolina GOP primary decided last week.

The gist of which is that the Republican establishment, triumphant in its efforts to carry Thom Tillis over the finish line against seven other candidates, had better do its best to unite the GOP voting base if it doesn’t want Tuesday’s victory to be a hollow one. But given the trashing of second-place finisher Greg Brannon by many in the Washington cookie-pusher crowd (most notably by Washington Post “conservative” writers Michael Gerson and Jen Rubin) throughout that campaign, that job is made harder.

You’d think that would be considered a relatively decent showing. Maybe Brannon’s a guy to watch. Perhaps the GOP would find him worth cultivating for a future election — for Congress, let’s say — while at the same time ensuring that he joins Team Tillis. Brannon’s 27 percent, plus the 17 percent that Baptist minister Mark Harris received, not to mention the 11 percent the five other candidates drew, make for a majority of the GOP vote — and Tillis will need them all in November. He needs to unite the conservative and Republican clans if he’s going to knock off the vulnerable-but-not-hopeless Hagan. Savvy pols know this: Sen. Rand Paul, who campaigned for Brannon and made a last-minute appearance in Charlotte on his behalf, immediately endorsed Tillis on primary night.

And yet Gerson, who clearly wants Tillis to defeat Hagan, didn’t get the memo. “Tillis’ main Tea Party opponent, Greg Brannon, possessed no apparent qualifications for public office, except a sense of divine calling and a remarkable facility for quoting the Constitution,” he wrote.

It’s worth questioning why he felt the need to bash Brannon in such a manner.

To be fair, there is emerging a second GOP establishment in Washington – that of the Freedomworks/Tea Party Patriots/Citizens United/Senate Conservatives Fund stripe. And the Tea Party Establishment is not blameless in attacking “RINO’s” like Tillis.

My piece notes that one reason Tillis was able to win was that the attacks on him from the right didn’t resonate…

Tillis’ record, after all, doesn’t look like that of a RINO. He’s the man largely responsible for passing a suite of policy reforms in North Carolina that turned that state’s Left into shrieking moonbats, spending their Mondays at the capitol in protest — of charter school expansions, tax reform, the end of state funding for Planned Parenthood, a voter ID law, a move toward eliminating state income taxes, among others. He’s going to be pilloried in the general election for that record, and for having made the suggestion that Republicans should employ a “divide and conquer” strategy of setting different classes of recipients of public assistance against each other in an effort to build support for shrinking the welfare state.

That Tillis should have been cast as a RINO in the primary might speak to criticisms of the Washington-based Tea Party groups forming an establishment of their own, but he was widely considered the “squish” of the three main contenders. Even Gerson had to admit this is a major shift in what constitutes mainstream conservatism.

The lesson of the Tillis victory isn’t that Karl Rove is back, though the media might want it to be. The lesson is that the GOP establishment has to find hard-core conservatives even in swing states if it wants to win its own nomination. Thom Tillis isn’t Mike Castle, and he isn’t Charlie Crist. Romney might have endorsed him, but while the 2012 presidential nominee — who won in North Carolina — came out in favor of a minimum wage increase, Tillis has said he’s not sure there should even be a minimum wage.

And that’s a dynamic we see here in Louisiana.

When people ask me about Rob Maness’ chances of pulling off an insurgent candidacy in the Louisiana senate race, I tell them about two major problems that as it happens he shares with Brannon.

First, Maness isn’t from Louisiana – he’s from all over, having spent a long career going from place to place in the U.S. Air Force. While that’s hardly a character flaw, and in fact it affords him life experience which looks good on a resume, it’s a hindrance for him as a first-time candidate who’s trying to win statewide office. Brannon struggled with a lack of longtime roots in North Carolina – he’s from Los Angeles, went to college at USC and medical school at the University of Chicago and moved to Cary, NC from New York – and he was running in a state which is a lot more transient-friendly than Louisiana is.

Four out of every five people who live in Louisiana were born here, which is either the highest number in the country or darned close to it. If you’re going to run for office here and you’re from someplace else you’re going to find yourself behind the eight-ball if you don’t get out and form a vast network of local contacts to substitute for the grade-school and high-school and social-club relationships you’ve missed out on. And while this is nowhere near as important as it used to be, you especially need to do that work if you’re coming here from someplace where they don’t eat grits and say y’all.

Brannon had a little trouble with the fact he’s a fast-talking Yankee in North Carolina. Maness isn’t quite the fast-talking Yankee, but he also doesn’t quite look natural in this ad…

It’s a good ad, don’t get me wrong. Maness needs to personalize himself and this is a decent way to do it. That said, the vast majority of people in Louisiana have never seen an alligator up close – and one questions whether saying “they’ll eat you alive” will really resonate with the locals.

Not being from here makes a difference in more than just whether you’re a believable gator-wrestler, though. Last week, Maness got a big bump out of the fact Sarah Palin endorsed him as the “conservative” candidate in the race. And while he’s much better off having Palin’s endorsement than not, the weight that’s going to carry in Louisiana is nothing like what the endorsement of somebody with a more local reputation would.

What Maness desperately needs, but hasn’t managed to get, is a sheriff, or an assessor, or a state legislator, or a mayor, or even a former statewide official. He would get a lot further if he could get Mike Foster or Bob Livingston or Laurence Chehardy to back him. And to date, he’s carrying a .000 batting average on the local pols; in large measure because he doesn’t have any personal relationships he can draw on to bring them aboard.

But Maness has another problem, and it’s ideology.

Don’t get me wrong. I like where he comes from. Maness is a legitimate constitutional conservative, and on a lot of issues his is the correct position.

But here’s the problem with that: most of our readers would consider me to be a fairly hard-core conservative. Maybe even a radical conservative. And yet, I’m satisfied with Bill Cassidy as an upgrade over Mary Landrieu. Landrieu, on all the conservative scorecards out there, usually rates somewhere around a 15. Cassidy rates around a 75. You pick up 60 points on the scorecards and that’s a colossal improvement worth celebrating. Particularly given that a decent piece of the 25 percent Cassidy doesn’t have from Club For Growth or Heritage Action comes from things like flood insurance and coastal restoration projects he’s voted for, when you can’t really ask him to vote against those things.

As an aside, I can make a strong conservative case for flood insurance and coastal restoration votes. After all, it was federal policy in the form of having the Corps of Engineers levee the Mississippi all the way to the mouth which make for higher risk of destruction in a hurricane thanks to the eroding marsh surrounding our most heavily-populated areas. But even given that, the voters in Louisiana demand our political representatives deliver some relief on those issues, and Cassidy is merely bending to reality while working on them. Maness hasn’t articulated anything of value on those issues thus far, and simply griping that the feds shouldn’t be involved in flood insurance won’t cut it. Yes, we’d be better off getting the feds out of that business, but if you’re going to make that case you’ve got to sell the public on how you get there. He hasn’t, and that indicates he doesn’t quite recognize the importance of the issue to the voters.

All of which brings me to the larger point: if your humble right-wing radical author doesn’t have a burning desire for a conservative improvement over Cassidy to run against Landrieu, then where is the hole in the market Maness can fill on the way to winning the Senate seat? How many people out there are just too conservative to vote for Cassidy? Five percent? Seven? Ten? Whatever the number is, it’s too small to make the runoff.

And here is the problem; assuming my calculus (and that of a lot of other people) is correct and Maness isn’t going to be able to get past Cassidy into the runoff, it’s going to require a great deal of unity among Republicans and conservatives in Louisiana to beat Landrieu just like some similar unity will have to materialize in North Carolina to beat Hagan. How do you get there after a primary spent infighting among Republicans?

The guess is that in North Carolina Tillis will cobble together a coalition and beat Hagan, because all involved will realize it’s stupid to waste a potential pickup over the animus between Karl Rove and Matt Kibbe. Hopefully that will happen in Louisiana as well if there’s a Cassidy-Landrieu (or even a Maness-Landrieu) runoff here. For the Tea Party, there is value in getting a Tillis or Cassidy over the finish line, after all; on most issues there is no ideological disagreement, but where there is conflict, helping the “establishment” candidate win does offer some leverage in the form of “we helped elect you; we can un-elect you in the next cycle.”

Either way, both sides should remember the real enemy is the Democrat Party. And act accordingly.

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