GOP establishment looks nervously at North Carolina Senate primary

The Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads have stepped in with ads to prop up U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis.

Story highlights

  • North Carolina House speaker could be the best bet to unseat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan
  • Tom Tillis faces conservative opponents in Tuesday's primary
  • Hagan's seat is one that Republicans think they have a good chance of flipping
  • Establishment Republicans are bucking up Tillis' campaign

For a Republican establishment still spooked by the ghosts of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock -- grassroots-backed conservatives who threw away winnable Senate races in recent elections with tone-deaf remarks about abortion -- Tuesday can't come soon enough.

In North Carolina, Republicans are watching closely to see if Thom Tillis, the state House speaker and maybe the party's best bet to unseat endangered Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan this November, can capture 40% of the vote in Tuesday's GOP Senate primary.

If he does, Tillis will become the party's Senate nominee, and Washington Republicans will breathe a little easier knowing they've dodged a long and expensive runoff battle between Tillis, the consensus frontrunner, and a flame-throwing conservative rival. Perhaps more importantly, Republicans will have picked a Senate candidate who doesn't immediately jeopardize their chances of defeating Hagan, whose approval ratings are dangerously low, and flipping a crucial swing state Senate seat into GOP hands.

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There's been an absence of reliable primary polling, but in the last week, North Carolina Republicans have come around to the idea that Tillis, nourished by an onslaught of supportive television ads from outside groups, has surged to the brink of winning the nomination outright. If no candidate reaches the 40% threshold in the primary, a runoff election will be held on July 15.

"This race is like that final putt that keeps moving slowly towards the hole," said Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, one of several national Republican groups backing Tillis. "It's on the right path, but it's whether it actually falls in or not on Tuesday."

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The race has been cast as yet another skirmish in the ongoing GOP civil war, pitting the establishment-backed Tillis against seven tea party challengers. It's true that Tillis has the support of prominent national Republicans -- including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell -- and the Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents' campaigns have fizzled

But it would be too easy to frame a Tuesday victory for Tillis, if it happens, as a clean win for the newly emboldened Republican establishment. Tillis hasn't been forced to beat back a tea party challenge, because his opponents haven't put up much of a fight. They've also splintered conservative support.

He has two serious rivals for the nomination: Greg Brannon, a staunch libertarian tea party activist who wants to put U.S. currency back on the gold standard, and Mark Harris, a prominent Baptist pastor from Charlotte who spearheaded the 2012 passage of a constitutional amendment that strengthened the state's same-sex marriage ban. Like other insurgent Republican candidacies around the country this year, neither campaign has managed to stir the kind of grassroots passion that propelled so many tea party victories in 2010.

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"I have been involved in serious Republican primary battles in North Carolina in the past, and this is not a serious battle," said Dee Stewart, a Raleigh-based GOP operative who is not working for any candidate in the race but has contributed money to Tillis."We have only one credible campaign. If there were other credible campaigns, Thom Tillis might have a hard time getting to 40%. But there is only one credible campaign."

The most recent campaign finance reports illustrate just how badly his opponents' campaigns have fizzled.

Polls favor GOP in midterm showdown

Tillis, a former IBM executive, has raised more than $3 million for his primary campaign and has about $1 million in the bank. Brannon, meanwhile, has the backing of national tea party outfits like the Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, but the groups have provided little financial cover for the cash-strapped candidate. Brannon has just $206,000 on hand. Harris reported even less: Just $72,000, barely enough to fund a modest advertising campaign on cable news, let alone fund the final blitz of a credible statewide campaign.

Counting on national figures to stir up some energy

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Brannon is hoping that a last-minute visit to the state Monday by his top national supporter, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, might provide a burst of media attention and activist energy to push him into a runoff. It's a risky gamble for Paul: Republicans inside and outside the state are privately questioning his last-minute decision to help Brannon, who was recently found liable by a Wake County jury for misleading investors in a failed tech startup. Brannon is appealing the decision.

Harris, too, has national support. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has endorsed his fellow Baptist pastor. But Harris' in-state relationships are more valuable: The president of North Carolina's Baptist State Convention, Harris has in his corner a formidable network of evangelicals, still a powerful constituency in a Republican primary in the South. Tillis backers privately fret that Harris, polished and charismatic, would be a more dangerous opponent than the volatile Brannon in a runoff, but Harris has not marshaled the resources to broaden his name recognition beyond his Christian conservative base.

In a pair of recent debates, Brannon and Harris tried to outflank Tillis from the right, questioning his commitment to gun rights and his opposition to same-sex marriage, but Tillis stayed above the fray and kept his focus squarely on Hagan. He has made electability a selling point in his pitch to Republicans.

"If I thought any of the other candidates had as good a chance at beating Kay Hagan as me, I'd be on their campaign committee," Tillis told CNN in a recent interview inside his Raleigh office. "This is about securing a majority in the U.S. Senate. None of the other candidates have the experience or have taken the time to build a foundation to have a credible campaign in November. If the Democratic establishment is going to rain down heavy on North Carolina to try to keep Hagan, we better have someone who has the track record and the campaign strategy to have the support to match that."

With almost $5 million worth of ads, Democratic groups have spent heavily to bloody Tillis early. But pro-Republican organizations have been the ones raining down heavy on North Carolina. Americans for Prosperity, a group with close ties to the Koch fundraising network, has already spent more than $8 million attacking Hagan.

Chamber, Crossroads seek 'electable' candidates

The Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads have also stepped in to prop up Tillis before the primary. The two groups have made it a mission in 2014 to seek out "electable" candidates in GOP primaries and help snuff out tea party insurgents in Senate and House races nationwide.

"We don't have any margin for error this year, and that's why we are going to continue to be aggressive in Republican primaries and in general elections on behalf of candidates that are best positioned to accomplish that goal," said Rob Engstrom, the chamber's national political director. "No longer are we going to wait for a candidate to emerge. We are going to get in to pick the best person to help lead the economic recovery, and Thom Tillis is that guy."

Outside groups are barred by law from coordinating with the campaigns, but they have worked methodically from a distance to support Tillis, a sign that independent GOP groups have learned from the failures of the 2012 presidential race, when super PACs and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups, which are not required to disclose their donors, ran TV ads and field operations that sometimes conflicted with the strategies of Mitt Romney's campaign and muddled the GOP message.

When Tillis recently went up with a television ad in every North Carolina market except for expensive Raleigh and Charlotte, strategists for outside groups saw a smoke signal asking for help. American Crossroads stepped in, later followed by the Chamber of Commerce.

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Chamber of Commerce ads back mainstream Republicans

"We assumed, since he is a smart politician, that he wasn't certain he had the resources to cover the whole state during the primary, and he was inviting others to fill the gap," said Law, the American Crossroads president. "So we filled that gap and stayed on Raleigh and Charlotte TV during that time. We carefully measured our progress during that time, and made sure our message was having an impact. Rather than taking the shotgun approach, we have tried to be more surgical about when and how we engage, solving particular problems rather than running the whole campaign from 30,000 feet."

Democrats already hitting Tillis with ads

Democrats, who see Tillis as the toughest potential challenger to Hagan, have tried to scuff up the House speaker even before the primary. The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has run an ad raising questions about two close Tillis aides who were caught having affairs with lobbyists and received payouts from the speaker's office after resigning. Hagan's campaign recently sent mailers to Republican voters citing Tillis' past support for a state health care exchange, which he now opposes, and showcasing a comment from a radio interview in which Tillis called the Affordable Care Act "a great idea" -- though he actually called it a "great idea that can't be paid for."

Tillis says he supports a complete repeal of the health care law. "We have to repeal it, then we have to come up with solutions for legitimate issues that we need," he told CNN. "You have to take Obamacare as a whole. Not a fix. A repeal of Obamacare, and then implement responsible health care solutions."

His unbending position on the health care law is a reminder that, despite the guff he's taken from the right during the primary, Tillis is far from some moderate squish -- a fact that Democrats are seizing on as they brace for the general election. "I am not running away from my conservative credentials," Tillis said. "I am running on them."

After Republicans seized control of the state legislature and governor's mansion in 2012, Tillis, as the leader of the House, helped engineer a dramatic conservative policy makeover in Raleigh, sparking the Moral Monday protests against GOP-backed budget cuts, voter ID laws and abortion restrictions.

The National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee have endorsed Tillis. He recently said he would eliminate the federal Department of Education. He's taken positions on women's issues -- like stripping Planned Parenthood of state funding and opposing a federal equal pay law -- that Democrats plan to use against him in a bid to win over independent suburbanites. And as much as Republicans in Washington view him as the most disciplined campaigner in the GOP field, his public comments are not always well-calibrated. He has dismissed criticism from Democratic opponents as "whining coming from losers."

Tied to the fringe?

"Thom Tillis is weighed down by a fringe, special interest agenda that he passed at the expense of middle-class families that goes hand in hand with his newest out-of-touch positions, his history of making divisive remarks, and his ethical baggage that ranges from pay-to-play politics to giving disgraced staffers taxpayer-funded severance packages," said Sadie Weiner, a spokesman for the Hagan campaign.

As he nears what could be the Republican finish line Tuesday, there are signs that Tillis is becoming more cautious with the general election on the horizon.

In 2012, Tillis eagerly embraced that year's version of the House Republican budget drafted by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Questioned about this year's budget plan -- specifically if he supports Medicare vouchers -- Tillis punted. "I haven't studied it to the position where I can really give you a well-informed response," he said.

He was also asked which senators he admires and hopes to emulate if he gets to Washington. The names he mentioned -- "high-caliber" members like Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso and Texas Sen. John Cornyn -- aren't exactly tea party heartthrobs.

Gesturing to a bust of Ronald Reagan on his desk, Tillis characterized his work in the state legislature as "responsible and balanced," and he punctuated the interview by questioning the effectiveness of conservative hard-liners like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

"Mr. Cruz is obviously a brilliant member," Tillis said. "I think that he stands for a lot of things that we as conservatives stand for. But how do you mobilize that? How do you sell your colleagues and the American people on the things that are his priorities?"