Former N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis took an early lead Tuesday in a Republican U.S. Senate race that has become a proxy fight for the GOP's 2016 presidential contenders and the first real battle nationally between the party's establishment and grassroots insurgents.
But it was still unclear whether Tillis, a Huntersville businessman, would get the 40 percent of the vote he'll need to avoid a July 15 runoff.
In early returns, with only 135 of over 2,000 precincts reporting, Tillis had 42.12 percent of the GOP vote. Locked in a battle for second were the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte with 20.39 percent and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary with 20.28 percent.
Among Democrat, U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan was way of ahead of two unknown challengers. She had 68.3 percent of the vote.
In a year when Republicans are given a good chance of taking control of the U.S. Senate, the GOP race in North Carolina has also been cast as a key test of clout between old guard and grassroots insurgents.
“This is the first high-profile Senate primary pitting the tea party against the establishment,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Late polls showed the race tightening, with Tillis, on the cusp of winning outright with 40 percent of the vote. If no one hits that number, the race heads to a runoff.
The eventual nominee will take on Hagan.
The North Carolina Senate battle has also become a proxy fight for contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Several of them waded into the contest, endorsing those Senate candidates that appeal to parts of the Republican base they’re counting on in their own runs for the White House.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who is a favorite with conservative Christian voters, endorsed Harris in 300,000 automated phone calls to N.C. Republican voters.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite and possible GOP presidential candidate, headlined a Charlotte rally for Brannon.
And on Monday, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney became the latest establishment figure to back Tillis. He and other GOP leaders in North Carolina and nationally see Tillis as the best bet for Republicans to unseat Hagan this year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other longtime Republican allies, has spent money in the state on ads promoting Tillis and attacking Hagan.
By Tuesday, the race had become one of the nation’s most expensive. Outside groups have spent nearly $8 million so far, according to the Federal Election Commission.
A Tuesday trip to Forest Hill Church, one of Charlotte’s polling sites, turned up support for all three of the major GOP Senate candidates.
Voters interviewed didn’t want their full names used, but they weren’t shy in explaining their choices.
Bill, a 73-year-old project manager, said he was voting for Tillis.
“I think he’s got the best chance of beating Hagan,” he said. “And he’s the one the Democrats would rather not face.”
Brad, 55, who works in home repair, said he voted for Brannon.
“He seems more conservative. And he’s a Christian. And he’s not a politician,” he said. “Tillis is conservative, but he seems more like a politician.”
Harris had his supporters, too. They cited the Baptist pastor’s character.
“I think he’s probably a good guy and honest,” said Jeanie, 48, who works in information technology. “Some of my friends have recommended him and they’re good at judging people.”
Hagan was expected to easily win renomination in the Democratic primary.