North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate campaign is entering what could be a decisive home stretch, with candidates taking to the air and outside groups scrambling to avoid a runoff.
At stake could be not only Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan’s seat but control of the entire U.S. Senate.
Two polls last week showed the three best-funded candidates – Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris – leading their five rivals, though not close to the 40 percent needed to win the May 6 primary.
Tillis, the House speaker who leads the pack, has the support of establishment groups as well as most GOP congressional leaders. American Crossroads, a super PAC founded by former White House adviser Karl Rove, is spending $1.1 million on TV ads on his behalf.
More outside groups, including the U.S. Chamber and the National Rifle Association, are expected to back Tillis in the next three weeks. Both groups typically mount independent TV campaigns on behalf of candidates.
The reason: They want to avoid a July 15 runoff, which would prolong the Republican contest.
“They understand they might not be able to prevent it, but they are willing to make an effort to try,” said analyst Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “Democrats are certainly rooting for it.”
A runoff in the middle of beach season is almost certain to attract a lower voter turnout, making the outcome more volatile. A statewide runoff in 2008 saw fewer than 2 percent of voters go to the polls.
It also could subject each candidate to continued attacks, cost money and damage the eventual nominee going into the campaign against Hagan.
“It’s in the Republican Party’s best interests not to have a runoff,” said GOP consultant Marc Rotterman of Raleigh. “And clearly right now it’s Tillis’ race to lose.”
All three of the top candidates will be on the air this week.
Tillis, who now lives in Huntersville, has begun a million-dollar ad buy. On Friday, Harris, a Charlotte pastor, launched a $300,000 blitz on cable. Campaign Manager Mike Rusher said he could add to that by May 6.
And Brannon, a Cary physician, starts running a TV ad Monday. It’s running exclusively on Fox News, according to campaign manager Reilly O’Neal.
“Our voters will see it,” he said.
This the first time that multiple Republicans have put their messages on TV.
“Once all three of them are on the air starts the most important phase of the campaign, a decision phase,” Duffy said. “Voters will finally have the opportunity to assess all three in a way they haven’t until now.”
Ads aren’t the only weapons. In a relatively low-turnout primary, all campaigns hope to mobilize their voters with aggressive ground games.
Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ campaign manager, said thousands of volunteers have been knocking on doors and manning phone banks.
Brannon has mobilized tea party groups throughout the state. And the tea party affiliated FreedomWorks has spent nearly $119,000 on mailing, phone calling and yard signs.
Harris, a former president of the Baptist State Convention, hopes to excite a base of Christian conservatives. That’s what he did in 2012 when he helped lead the fight to pass the amendment that enshrines traditional marriage in the state constitution.
On April 24, he’s bringing Tony Perkins, leader of the conservative Family Research Council, to Charlotte for a fundraiser.
“There’s kind of a natural network for him that I think is going to be very helpful,” Perkins said.
Perkins said Tillis’ status as the establishment-backed candidate isn’t necessarily an advantage.
“We’re seeing across the country that can be a real double-edge sword,” he said. “There’s a lot of anti-establishment sentiment out there.”
Tillis spokesman Shaw said his campaign’s not worried.
“We’re not taking anything for granted, but we like the way we’re trending,” he said “We’re working hard to avoid the runoff.”