N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, who had full-fledged support from the state and national Republican establishment, beat back challengers favored by tea party activists and Christian conservatives to win the right Tuesday to take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November.
In Tillis’ victory speech, delivered in front of an American flag at an uptown Charlotte hotel, he wasted no time in framing the fall campaign as a fight to not only retire Hagan, but also strike a blow against President Barack Obama’s policies and wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.
“Kay Hagan and (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid are nothing but an echo chamber for President Obama’s worst ideas,” Tillis said. “If we want to change the mess of Obamacare, we have to change our senator.”
Hagan, too, didn’t hesitate in going after Tillis, pointing to his record as the leader of a Republican-controlled General Assembly that has been accused of catering to the rich and right-wing and abandoning teachers and working families.
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“This election is a simple choice between two very different records,” said Hagan in a statement Tuesday night. “Thom Tillis has spent his time in Raleigh pushing a special interest agenda that has rigged the system against middle-class families.”
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Tillis, who lives in Huntersville, received 45.67 percent of the vote. He needed 40 percent to avoid a July 15 runoff that would have forced him to spend precious time and money that he’ll now get to spend trying to unseat Hagan.
Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary, whose campaign was propelled by the tea party, finished second with 27.10 percent. And the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charlotte and a champion of socially conservative issues, was third at 17.63 percent.
Hagan, of Greensboro, whose poll numbers indicate she may be vulnerable in the head-to-head with Tillis, easily won renomination, with Democrats in the state giving her 76.50 percent of their vote.
In his home county of Mecklenburg, Tillis got slightly more than half of the GOP votes cast, 50.68 percent, more than double Brannon’s 23.78 percent.
Mecklenburg County has had U.S. Senate nominees before – former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, a Democrat, challenged U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms twice in the 1990s.
But if elected in November, Tillis would be the first resident of Mecklenburg to represent North Carolina in the upper chamber since Democrat Cameron Morrison in the early 1930s.
The winner this fall could tilt the partisan balance in the closely split U.S. Senate, and North Carolina’s importance in the national picture is readily apparent in the nearly $20 million spent by outside political groups in recent months to influence the race, particularly voters’ opinions about the federal health care law.
Tens of millions more in outside spending is expected in the months ahead in a race that likely will top state spending records.
“I would expect you’re going to start seeing a battle almost immediately,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist who ran the party’s 2010 U.S. Senate candidate against Republican Richard Burr. “And I think you’ll start seeing pretty quickly a return to beating up on Kay Hagan.”
Look for the Democrats to land some blows, too. Within minutes of The Associated Press calling the primary election for Tillis, Democratic groups flooded political reporters’ in-boxes with denunciations of Tillis and his record.
Tillis’ win brought major relief to national GOP leaders, who have long considered North Carolina key to any scenario for Republicans’ taking control of the Senate.
The final days of the primary brought endorsements for Tillis from 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is emerging as the GOP establishment’s best bet for the party’s presidential nomination in 2016. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other longtime GOP allies have also given Tillis expensive support, in the form of TV ads touting him and attacking Hagan.
They saw the outspoken Brannon and the Charlotte preacher as possible Southern versions of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock – two GOP insurgents who beat the establishment candidates in their states (Missouri and Indiana), only to commit major blunders and lose winnable U.S. Senate seats in those red states.
Need to unite GOP
But, to beat Hagan, Tillis will first have to unite a state GOP that remains a reflection of the fissures dividing the national party. The combined vote totals for Brannon and Harris nearly matched Tillis’ total.
“The factionalization within the state GOP is still there,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “The big question for Tillis: Can he consolidate that half of the Republican Party and get them energized for November? He’ll have their votes – if he can get them to the polls.”
Tillis reached out to his primary opponents during his speech Tuesday night, saying he and they “are on the same team – the team to beat Kay Hagam.”
Other N.C. Republicans were betting Tuesday that Tillis will be able to win over many of those who voted for somebody else in the primary. To woo conservatives, he can point to all the legislation the state House has passed with his in the speaker’s chair, said N.C. Rep. Charlie Jeter.
“He really does encompass the tent of the Republican Party that (President) Reagan so eloquently,” said Jeter. “I don’t believe we’re going to have long harboring bad blood between anybody (in the party).”
Hagan and the national Democratic Party, which has been promoting her and attacking Tillis in TV ads for months, had hoped that the N.C. House speaker would falter or at least be thrown into a diverting runoff. Facing Brannon or Harris in a July vote would have forced Tillis to move to the right, then quickly scramble to the middle in the fall.
Still, Bitzer said the nomination of Tillis will allow Hagan to tie him to a N.C. legislature that is deeply unpopular with Democrats. So unpopular, Bitzer said, that Democrats who often stay home in mid-term election years will come out and vote against Tillis.
“She needs the Democratic base to show up,” Bitzer said
John Frank of the News & Observer of Raleigh contributed