You can rest assured that the Tea Partiers have not appreciably changed. I struck up a conversation with a woman with spangly gold fingernails named Sharon Doyle, who spends her free time holding “Impeach Obama” and “Remember Benghazi” signs on highway overpasses a couple of times a month. A caregiver for the elderly who’s had cancer and back surgery, she can’t afford health insurance through her employer, but she refuses to visit the federal health-insurance website for ideological reasons. Of the Republican frontrunner, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, she had only disdain—”He’s a RINO. I don’t trust him”—and said she wouldn’t vote in November if he became the nominee.
This has become a familiar scene in American politics: the fractured GOP wracked by the demands of a cranky right-wing base. But Tuesday might be remembered as the night it changed. To a degree not seen before since the advent of the Tea Party five years ago, the Republican establishment took on the warring factions that have given the GOP so many ulcers in recent years—and won. With 94 percent of the vote counted Tuesday night, Tillis had cleared the 40-percent runoff threshold, taking 45 percent of the vote to his nearest competitor’s 27 percent.
In the month ahead, similar contests will unfold in several more states, including Kentucky, home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The establishment—defined here as the traditionally corporate and institutional GOP—hopes to keep up the full-court press begun in North Carolina and run the table, theoretically producing the slate of nominees that will give the party the best possible shot at taking the Senate.