North Carolina Speaker Thom Tillis has won the GOP Senate nomination, avoiding a costly runoff and giving him, and the Republican establishment, a major boost heading into this fall’s election against Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.).
The Associated Press called the race outright for Tillis, who was leading with 46 percent of the vote in the crowded field with 43 percent of precincts reporting. Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon (R) had 27 percent and Rev. Mark Harris (R) had 17 percent, with five other candidates in the single digits.
By winning more than 40 percent of the vote Tillis avoids a drawn out and expensive two-month primary contest that could have hurt his chances against Hagan.
"Middle-class voters in North Carolina have paid the price as Senator Kay Hagan's time in Washington has been filled with one broken promise after another," Tillis said in a statement following his win.
Tillis benefited from a big spending advantage thanks to aid from outside groups. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the GOP-aligned American Crossroads combined to spend nearly $2.5 million on ads boosting Tillis in the race, deluging the airwaves to raise his name identification. Tillis added $1 million to the mix.
Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) all endorsed Tillis in the final week of the campaign, and he also had fundraising help earlier on from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
The state House Speaker also benefited from his opponents’ struggles. Neither Harris nor Brannon brought in enough money to seriously invest in television, a major problem in an expansive state with seven media markets.
Brannon, who was backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), faced legal problems during the campaign — a judge ruled in March that he owed former business investors nearly a half-million dollars after misleading them on an investment. Even a last-minute campaign visit from Paul on Monday couldn’t push him into the runoff.
Harris failed to gain traction despite an endorsement from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). The Baptist minister’s social conservative appeal only went so far, and may have been undercut by the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement of Tillis, which he touted in his final ad alongside the backing of the National Rifle Association.
The race is a top GOP priority as they seek to win the six seats needed to take back the Senate. Hagan and Tillis have been neck and neck in most recent polls in the swing state.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee congratulated Tillis on the win.
"Tonight voters recognized that Thom Tillis is a strong leader with a history of getting things done for North Carolina, a strong contrast with Kay Hagan who, beyond ObamaCare and being a rubber stamp for Barack Obama, has little to show for her time in Washington," NRSC Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said in a statement.
Tillis’s win comes despite attempts by Democrats to trip him up in the primary. Hagan’s campaign and the Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC have been running ads for weeks attacking Tillis on his ethics and accusing him of helping get severance packages for two former staffers who resigned after they were caught having affairs with lobbyists. Hagan’s campaign also sent direct mail to GOP voters in the state accusing Tillis of supporting ObamaCare -- a remark the Republican said was meant to be sarcastic.
Republican-aligned groups have already been on the air for months hammering Hagan for her support of President Obama and ObamaCare. Led by Americans for Prosperity, the groups have already spent a combined $12 million attacking Hagan in the state.
Crossroads also congratulated Tillis on the win.
"It was clear from the start that Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda, and tonight’s victory is the first step toward making that happen," said Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay. "We engaged early and worked closely with other center-right groups to help Tillis overcome a late dirty-tricks campaign orchestrated by Hagan and national Democrats."
Hagan's campaign and her allies argue that the primary already hurt Tillis by dragging him to the right. Anticipating a Tillis win, her campaign circulated a memo Tuesday attacking him for his “pattern of divisive statements,” ripping him for comments that members of North Carolina’s teaching union “don't care about kids” and “only care about their jobs and their pensions” and highlighting a number of other statements they say will hurt him in the fall.
"Throughout the primary Tillis embraced extreme, far-right Tea Party positions such as opposing a federal minimum wage, advocating for the elimination of the Department of Education, stating he believes states have the authority to ban birth control, and supporting personhood legislation that would make common forms of birth control illegal," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky said in a statement.
This post was last updated at 10:40 p.m.