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North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis cruised to a surprisingly comfortable victory in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary, and the media reaction was quick and dramatic.

“GOP establishment 1, Tea Party 0,” CNN declared.

“The Tea Party’s North Carolina wipeout,” Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote.

The results are “sending shivers down the spine of Tea Party leadership,” MSNBC’s Tamron Hall exclaimed on News Nation.

There is some truth in these reactions. National Republicans who waded into the race divided along the usual “civil war” battle lines, with “establishment” heavyweights such as Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell, and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads backing Tillis, and Tea Party figures like Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and FreedomWorks lining up behind the second-place finisher, right-wing obstetrician Greg Brannon.

But while their favored candidate may have lost on Tuesday, Tea Party leaders should still be feeling pretty good about the Republican nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November. Despite his establishment label, Tillis is poised to represent the right’s interests perfectly if North Carolinians send him to Washington.

Tillis has served in North Carolina’s General Assembly since 2007, and as speaker since 2011. It would be hard to have a more conservative record than he’s compiled in that time. Under Tillis’ leadership, the legislature rewrote the state’s tax code to the benefit of the rich and the detriment of the poor, cut $500 million from public education while shifting money towards school vouchers, slashed unemployment benefits, imposed some of the most restrictive anti-abortion measures in the nation (by quietly attaching them to an unrelated motorcycle safety bill), passed a set of draconian voting laws that limit access to the ballot (particularly for black voters), and essentially made it illegal to predict that the sea level will rise. And that only scratches the surface of the right’s plans for the state.

Throughout his Senate campaign, Tillis has made no effort to distance himself from the far-right legislature he leads. On the contrary; he’s declared that he’s proud of the state’s “conservative revolution,” and proposed ways to push North Carolina even further to the right. For example, he’s suggested that Congress should eradicate the minimum wage altogether.

Even as Tillis was scoring a victory for the “establishment” on Tuesday, video emerged of him urging his fellow Republicans to “divide and conquer” Americans on public assistance.

“We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice, in her condition, that needs help and that we should help,” he says in the tape, which was filmed in 2011. “And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say ‘at some point, you’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.’”

On Wednesday morning, the newly minted Republican candidate said he regretted the phrasing he used in the video — but he declined to back away from the sentiment.

It’s true that Tillis is not as far to the right as Brannon, the Tea Party’s chosen candidate. But who could be? Brannon, who argued that food stamps are equivalent to slavery, and that interstate toll roads are fascism, was about as extreme as a candidate could get, even in a southern Republican primary. But that doesn’t make Tillis a moderate — something that conservative voters understood going into the polls.

Tea Party groups also understand this; it’s why they wasted no time in lining up behind Tillis after Brannon conceded on Tuesday, and it’s likely why they put barely any money behind Brannon’s campaign to begin with (although a more cynical observer might conclude that they had other reasons for holding on to the cash).

Make no mistake: Although he “defeated” them in the primary, if Tillis does go on to defeat Kay Hagan in November, Tea Party Republicans will end up overjoyed with the Senate’s newest ultraconservative.

Photo: North Carolina National Guard via Flickr

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