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Next up for Tillis: a political conundrum

It was one of the basic tenets we learned in PoliSci 101: Play to the party activists in a primary, then scamper back to the center for the general election. But can Thom Tillis do that? Does he even want to?

Now that the N.C. House Speaker has shaken those pesky opponents from the tea party and the religious right to win the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, he can turn all of his focus to defeating Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. He faces a tricky choice, though: Continue to boast about the “conservative revolution” he led in a decidedly purple state, or try to tack back to the middle. If he does the first, he alienates the independent voters he needs to win. If he does the second, he stands for nothing and faces a flood of disapproving fact-checkers.

Tillis was seen as the “establishment” candidate in this primary, but his record and his rhetoric are clear: He is no moderate, and could come across that way only when sitting next to Greg Brannon and Heather Grant.

Among the stances and accomplishments of which he’s most proud: Denying federally funded Medicaid to a half-million North Carolinians; helping pass a discriminatory constitutional amendment that was instantly on shaky legal ground; passing one of the most voter-unfriendly laws in the nation; and cutting taxes by more than $2 billion while giving teachers not a penny in raises.

His House passed a bill to let people carry guns in bars and another that put tough restrictions on legal abortions. He said at an Observer debate last month that climate change was not a fact, there should be no federal minimum wage and the Department of Education should be abolished.

Some believe he was forced into some of those positions by political considerations. Whatever is in the depths of his heart, his resumé is undeniable.

All of which helped him turn back a challenge from seven primary candidates. He’ll feel pressure to dial that back in a general election race in a state Barack Obama won in 2008 and narrowly lost in 2012.

We worry that the pickle he’s in will drive him, and his out-of-state financial backers, to talk less in the upcoming campaign about what he has done in Raleigh and would do in Washington and more about Hagan. Her record is fair game, of course, and it is an underwhelming one. She needs to convince voters that she has passion and knowledge around issues important to them. But voters also need to learn more from Tillis than the fact that Hagan voted for the Affordable Care Act.

This race is one of the few nationwide that will determine control of the United States Senate, and so will attract many millions of dollars from special interest groups on both sides. We hope voters will pay close attention, and that more than the one in five who voted Tuesday will show up in November.

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