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And the Winner of the GOP’s Civil War Primary Is …

NCPOL14 035 050514 445x282 And the Winner of the GOP’s Civil War Primary Is ...
Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the Greg Brannon for Senate rally at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte on Monday, the day before North Carolina’s primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Who is winning the primary campaign war within the GOP between pragmatic conservatives and the anti-establishment wing of the party?

It’s a simple question, but it isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. Part of the problem is deciding which candidates and races are part of the war.

The anti-establishment wing of the party actually consists of two different elements: economic libertarians, supported most notably by the Club for Growth, and tea party groups such as FreedomWorks, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and the Tea Party Express. (Anti-establishment voices like Sarah Palin and RedState’s Erick Erickson fit in with the tea party groups.)

Some groups and individuals have already proved that their endorsements and independent expenditures matter, while the impact of others remains an open question.

The Club for Growth, for example, is strategic in its approach and considers competitiveness before entering a race. It plays only where it thinks it can win. But FreedomWorks has a long list of endorsements that includes plenty of unthreatened incumbents, and while the Madison Project has endorsed Milton Wolf’s challenge to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., so far the group has helped Wolf raise a mere $150 of its $10,000 goal for the candidate, according to the Madison Project’s website.

In other words, not all of the primaries that pit pragmatic conservatives against anti-establishment hopefuls are serious fights. The primary for Senate in North Carolina on Tuesday, for example, is not one of them — at least not yet — depending on whether state Speaker Thom Tillis is forced to face one of his GOP opponents in a runoff.

For now, in North Carolina and other races, a tea-party-backed candidate without any resources isn’t a real threat to an incumbent or a well-heeled pragmatic conservative.

In fact, there are only a relative handful of races that qualify as establishment versus anti-establishment campaign fights.

The first is in Idaho’s 2nd District, where the Club for Growth, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and Senate Conservatives Fund all targeted Rep. Mike Simpson in the GOP primary. Insurgent challenger Bryan Smith appeared to have an excellent shot at knocking off Simpson, who was and remains proud of his pragmatic record.

Smith and his allies pounded Simpson, who has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life, on government spending issues. But the congressman and his allies fired back, attacking the challenger’s trial lawyer background and defending Simpson’s conservative record.

A terrific U.S. Chamber of Commerce TV spot, one of three by the group, features a strong endorsement of Simpson by Mitt Romney, helping the congressman in a district with a considerable Mormon population.

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