North Carolina's GOP Senate field could hurt Republicans’ chances to knock off Sen. Kay HaganKay HaganLinking repatriation to job creation Former Sen. Kay Hagan in ICU after being rushed to hospital GOP senator floats retiring over gridlock MORE (D-N.C.), pushing the candidates to the right and forcing them to use resources better saved for the general election. [WATCH VIDEO]
Baptist Minister Mark Harris (R) told supporters Thursday that he plans to run, joining North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) and Tea Party candidate Greg Brannon (R) in the race. North Carolina state Senate President Phil Berger (R) is running television ads touting his work on voting rights and has ripped Hagan on a number of issues in recent days, a sign he’s still interested in running for the seat.
“North Carolina is lining up to be ground zero for this election. It's the majority,” said one national GOP strategist.
Berger and Tillis also have had a testy relationship stemming from tensions between their chambers, which may lead to a nasty primary that could hurt the eventual nominee. If no candidate reaches 40 percent in the May primary the race goes into a seven-week runoff, costing the candidates time and further resources they could have saved for the general election.
“The more the Republican field gets divided, and the potential of the entire field having to shift to the right to gain some traction — it's not going to help matters,” said Prof. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College in North Carolina. “In the end, when this probably should be a seat that should go Republican, it's going to be one of the closer ones this year because of the primary.”
Hagan, despite mediocre approval ratings in the swing state, leads all of her Republican opponents by double-digit margins in recent polling by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, and has $4.2 million already in the bank for the race. None of the Republicans are well-known, and the poll shows none of the candidates has united the party around them.
Tillis remains the clear primary front-runner for now despite his low name recognition statewide. Many national Republicans and power players in the state have rallied around him. He has the most complete campaign operation to date and has posted reasonably strong fundraising numbers.
Harris may struggle with fundraising. But he is likely to win at least some support from the state’s large evangelical community, many of whom know him for his activism against gay marriage and abortion. He has support from former state GOP chairman and congressman Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), and has a relationship with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who had him as a featured speaker at a Friday rally in North Carolina, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Harris told The Hill on Thursday that he’d run as the political outsider against the more traditional candidates, and promised a “balanced approach” in his campaign between emphasizing social, fiscal and foreign policy issues. But strategists expect most of his support to come from social conservatives.
Brannon is a long shot to win the nomination, but is barnstorming hard across the state and could siphon off Tea Party votes.
The big question is whether Berger jumps in. The state senate leader has toyed with running for months, first saying he’d decide at the end of the mid-summer state legislative session, then by the end of August.
He’s yet to make an announcement, making some skeptical he’ll run. But in the past week, Berger launched a six-figure ad buy in the Greensboro market touting his passage of voter identification legislation, ripping both Hagan and President Obama on the topic, and publicly criticized Hagan for her stance on Syria -- clear signs he wants to keep his name in the mix for the seat.
If Berger runs, the race changes dramatically. He has a reputation for being more conservative than Tillis, who is closer with the state’s business community, and there is no love lost between the two, which could lead to a tense primary. The two have sparred over strategy and many in the state believe they strongly dislike one another.
“Behind the scenes there's a lot more animosity than people may realize,” Bitzer said.
Tillis’s campaign says it’s not worried about a contentious primary, or about using too many resources early.
“We're going to be focused on building our brand up early regardless of whether or not there's a primary,” said Tillis strategist Paul Shumaker.
National Republicans agree, predicting a civil primary and arguing Hagan’s support of President Obama and short list of accomplishments will hurt her. It’s also likely that whoever wins the nomination will have plenty of outside support to help match Hagan’s fundraising edge.
But others in the party are voicing concerns.
“Hagan is beatable but they have to get their act together. The clock is ticking,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “The longer and messier this primary drags on the harder that's going to be. Certainty the primary in North Carolina is on the minds of a lot of national GOP folks because they recognize what kind of needle they have to thread to win control of the Senate.”