The first is that the Republican civil war suffers from an imprecision of language. It’s mostly described as the tea party versus the establishment, but what is the tea party? Several groups lay claim to the movement’s mantle, but they have varying levels of funding and political credibility. As The Washington Post reported last month, many issue endorsements but spend most of their money on their own political operations rather than on supporting their chosen candidates. So getting dubbed a “tea party” candidate is easy compared to actually getting national anti-establishment muscle behind you.
Which brings up a second lesson: Follow the money. Tillis benefited from $2.5 million in TV ads and mailers from groups like American Crossroads (Karl Rove’s outfit), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association. Tillis’ main competitor, Greg Brannon, was deemed a tea party candidate, but it earned him little to no national anti-establishment support: He got a visit from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and a bit over $100,000 in help from the one major tea party group to support him, FreedomWorks.