The Republican drive to capture the Senate in the 2014 midterm election got a significant boost Tuesday in North Carolina with the victory of house speaker Thom Tillis in the GOP Senate primary. Tillis will face Democratic senator Kay Hagan in the November election.
With unprecedented help from outside groups—American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association—Tillis got 45 percent of the vote, defeating two major challengers and averting a potentially destructive runoff election.
Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon trailed with 27 percent of the vote. Charlotte preacher Mark Harris came in third with 18 percent, but his appealing style suggested he will be a major player in Republican politics. Kentucky senator Rand Paul came to North Carolina on Monday to campaign for Brannon. Given the outcome, that may have been a political mistake. Harris was backed by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate.
But the support of Republican groups proved to be crucial. American Crossroads ran three separate ads touting Tillis. And rather than vote for Brannon, a doctor, many Tea Party activists appear to have voted for Tillis.
A key loser was Senate majority leader Harry Reid. His political action committee broadcast ads in the primary attacking Tillis, hoping one of the lesser candidates would be easier for Hagan to beat. The ads by the Democratic leader appeared to have little or no impact.
The Tillis victory was important for two reasons. One, he is regarded, especially by Democrats, as the only Republican capable of defeating Hagan. Not that Hagan is a strong incumbent—she isn’t—but she will have millions to target against the Republican nominee, plus aid from Democratic super PACs. Tillis alone is seen as equipped to withstand a withering negative campaign.
Second, North Carolina is the key state in the fall election. Without it, Republicans are unlikely to gain the six Senate seats needed to take control of the Senate and oust Reid as majority leader. With it, Republican prospects of seizing the Senate are far brighter.
“North Carolina now becomes ground zero in the fight for the Senate,” said Republican consultant Marc Rotterman. “Hagan is on the wrong side of nearly every issue.”
She is particularly vulnerable on Obamacare, which she voted for. Like President Obama, Hagan promised that those who wished to keep their current health insurance could do so. That turned out to be untrue. Hagan has stumbled badly in trying to find a way to combat attacks on Obamacare.
Her campaign presents Hagan as a problem-solving senator eager to compromise with Republicans in Washington. Her record in the Senate, however, is that of a party-line Democrat. Now she is playing down her connection with the Democratic party. And when Obama visited the state recently, she declined to appear with him.
Tillis’s political strength comes from his instrumental part in the success of Republicans in enacting a sweeping conservative agenda after they won the governorship and both houses of the legislature in the 2012 election Republicans cut personal and business taxes, curbed regulations, slashed spending, and changed election law to require voters to show ID.