I’ve done enough complaining about the lazy media spin on the North Carolina GOP primary as the “triumph of the Republican Establishment,” and laid down my marker in protest of the impending description of the Osborn-Sasse battle-of-the-mad-fringe as another “Establishment Versus Tea” classic.

But I can’t really blame the chattering classes–including WaPo’s Paul Kane, who took a whack at the topic yesterday–for wondering if that template will be crucially reinforced by what happens in Georgia on May 20.

It is indeed startling to see that the two candidates in the GOP Senate field with the least Tea cred–self-funding corporate type David Perdue and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Appropriations)–have been dominating the airwaves and doing very well in the polls, in a race that’s occurring because Saxby Chambliss was chased out of his Senate seat for insufficient ideological ferocity. Here’s how Kane put it:

Nowhere in the United States did the tea party seem better poised for victory than in Georgia’s open Senate race. The Peach State, along with South Carolina, has anchored the movement for the past five years, providing Congress with four of the 25 most conservative voting records.

Yet on a recent evening, Rep. Jack Kingston (R) strode across the stage at Cagle’s Family Farm with the surprising air of a front-runner. He is exactly the kind of candidate the tea party movement most reviled: a 22-year member of Congress with a history of doling out federal dollars….

Kingston and businessman David Perdue — a multimillionaire cousin of former governor Sonny Perdue — have been atop most polls and have raised more money than their most conservative rivals, creating the possibility that the July 22 runoff will leave conservatives without a candidate. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two candidates will proceed to the runoff….

I only fault Kane in one respect: he views Kingston’s campaign as openly anti-Tea in tone if not substance, aimed at minimizing self-destructive infighting in the GOP.

That’s not the Jack Kingston I’ve been watching, who has used his “insider” money to conduct a complete makeover of his record and image. If he’s not attacking The Welfare, he’s holding an imaginary conversation with Obama in which he refuses to “back off on Obamacare.” He’s lately been emphasizing his long-time support for that ancient wingnut boob-bait panacea, the Fair Tax (a highly regressive national sales tax scheme), and his every communication is emblazoned with the spurious National Journal rating that gives him “the most conservative voting record in the race.”

Like Thom Tillis in NC (or at many crucial moments, Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential nominating contest), Kingston has dealt with the RINO label by running an aggressively right-wing campaign. Lucky for him, the candidate most likely to call him out for mendacity, Paul Broun, cannot find two nickels to rub together, while another, Phil Gingrey, has been (best as I can tell) running a completely feckless campaign.

But unlike Thom Tillis, Kingston (or for that matter, Perdue) can’t slip into the nomination with a plurality of the vote. There will be a runoff after a dangerously long two-month juncture. The very latest poll actually has Kingston running third behind under-funded but well-known former Secretary of State Karen Handel. Her two most prominent supporters are Sarah Palin and Erick Erickson, so nobody’s much calling her a “Republican Establishment” candidate. Kingston and Perdue are each being targeted by shadowy “independent” ad campaigns, as well. And early voting numbers indicate the strong possibility of a very low turnout on May 20, which doesn’t auger well for TV-based candidacies.

If Perdue and Kingston manage to slither into a runoff together, the “Republican Establishment” will without doubt be credited with another big win. But if their contest turns into a Nebraska-style slugfest over who is craziest, that could be a premature assessment. As I keep insisting, if the Establishment “wins” simply by preempting the Tea Party’s issue positions and chest-thumping radicalism, then who is really winning?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.