Republican primary's absurd storyline: Why the media's drama narrative is all wrong

It's the Tea Party vs. the establishment Republicans! Or so we're told. Here's what's really happening in the GOP

Published May 6, 2014 7:30PM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

The temperature is warming, the flowers are in bloom, the trees are filling out, and it's an even-numbered year: ahh, it must be primary season, with the sweet smell of headstrong disruption emanating from Republican races across the land. Which "establishment favorites" will be ousted this year for once daring to draw a perceived RINO breath? Which tragicomic, rape-ain't-so-bad clownheads will replace them and go on to lose seats that they have no business losing? It's springtime for "Republican civil war" narrative-crafters.

If only there were more material to work with. So far, GOP Primary Season 2014 has been heavily overrated as a stage for intraparty drama.

Let's consider the main event tonight: North Carolina's Senate Republican primary, the winner of which will face vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in November. This is the one to watch, we've been told. And that's because it sets up perfectly for political media typecasting. There's state speaker Thom Tillis, the "establishment" favorite, getting endorsements from the Mitt Romneys and Karl Roves of the world, and having lots of money. Then we have Dr. Greg Brannon, the non-career politician "Tea Party" crusader, endorsed by the likes of Sen. Rand Paul and FreedomWorks and Gadsden flag-wavers everywhere; the guy who can't go four seconds without quoting some clause of the Constitution that instantly provides the answer to all of our most complex socioeconomic problems. And then there's Mark Harris, the Mike Huckabee-backed Bible dude.

The establishment guy, the Tea Party guy, the social conservative guy. Got it?

So who's going to win? Is it a toss-up or something -- is that why we're paying attention? Not really. We're paying attention to see if there's going to be... a runoff. A runoff that Tillis, in all likelihood, would win.

Here's Politico on the race, many paragraphs into the story, eventually getting to the point (emphasis mine):

Although most Republicans and Democrats are assuming Tillis will eventually be the nominee, if the GOP establishment favorite fails to receive 40 percent of the vote on Tuesday and forces the primary into a two-month runoff contest, the prolonged intraparty civil war could hurt the nominee’s chances of beating Hagan in November.

So, while there's a small chance Brannon could pick off Tillis in a runoff, what we're mostly watching is to see whether Tillis locks it up now or in July. The idea that this would determine whether Hagan keeps her seat or not seems overrated: there's still a long time between July and November, and besides, Hagan is already being mightily "softened up" by a barrage of American for Prosperity's negative ads.

But then we get to the sub-sub(?)-narrative, the one that Republican party officials are more worried about: that if Tillis can't lock up 40% in today's kickoff special, it will set a cynical, "here they go again" tone within the media for the whole season. From The Hill:

“It’s extremely important. If Tillis avoids a runoff the headline is ‘GOP dodges a bullet’ and if he doesn’t, it’s ‘Hagan dodges a bullet,’” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

O’Connell said the race could help set the tone for the rest of the primary season, for better or worse.

“It’s important for Tillis to get the party beyond this hump psychologically as well. It could make a lot of other things go easier. The last thing the party wants is the ‘here they go again’ narrative,” he said.

This also seems like an instance of the party -- which is understandably paranoid -- getting too caught up in its fears over a short-lived narrative. Sure, if Tillis doesn't get 40% tonight, there will be headlines for the rest of this week proclaiming HERE THEY GO AGAIN!

But how long will that last? On May 20, for instance, Sen. Mitch McConnell will destroy Matt Bevin in Kentucky's primary. Sen. Thad Cochran appears to be all set in Mississippi. On June 10, Sen. Lindsey Graham will coast by a collection of single-digit losers, and on Aug. 7, Sen. Lamar Alexander shouldn't have that much trouble. So even if that "psychological hump" isn't surmounted tonight in North Carolina, we need only wait a couple more weeks until it is.

It's just not a very exciting primary season. And even though the "establishment" candidates may win, that shouldn't be considered a victory for them over the Tea Party. The only reason they will win is because they tacked hard to the Tea Party's positions and had more money. The lines have been blurred, and we're not going to be looking at a kinder, gentler GOP afterwards. 

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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