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Why This Year’s Primaries Won’t End GOP Civil War

Tillis is the GOP nominee in North Carolina. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call)

The Republican establishment is fighting back, but winning a few primaries this year won’t do much to end the insurgency from party purists. It only takes one general election loss by an establishment candidate to reignite the fire.  

Observers see what they want to see in the results, and they can be blinded by their preconceptions and personal preferences.  

For example, state Speaker Thom Tillis won the GOP nomination in North Carolina on Tuesday. But if he loses to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November, anti-establishment Republicans will cry, “See, I told you so.” “If only we had nominated Greg Brannon,” they will argue. Or, “If we had only nominated Mark Harris, then we would have won the seat.” It doesn’t matter if that is actually true or not, it’s what “constitutional conservatives” will believe, and it will lead them to redouble their efforts for the anti-establishment cause.  

The same dynamic would likely result if GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy loses to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana or, to a greater extent, if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell loses re-election in Kentucky. On a national level, the “I told you so” comes up each time an establishment Republican presidential candidate doesn’t get to the Oval Office.  

The lessons learned from races are often more important than the actual results. For example, Republicans believe that talking about the Affordable Care Act allowed Republican Ken Cuccinelli to close the gap with Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the 2013 gubernatorial race. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether that is actually true or not, but that belief guided some strategic decisions on the Republican side this year.  

This phenomenon isn’t unique to the Republican Party. Democrats went through a similar fight between the Democratic Leadership Council and organized labor. And Democrats could face another divide in the not-too-distant future with a more populist wing being frustrated with a “corporate wing” of the party.  

So even though Tillis was victorious on Tuesday and McConnell is heavy favorite on May 20, establishment candidates must be victorious in November in order to take some of the air out of the insurgency balloon.