Senate races

Can GOP establishment get a win in NC?

The Republican establishment is going all-in for North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis — and it seems to be working. 

Tillis is on the cusp of the 40 percent he needs in Tuesday’s primary to avoid a runoff and secure the nomination against Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). Locking up the nod early could boost his chances in one of the GOP’s top targets and gives national Republicans a big win over the Tea Party just as primary season heats up. 

{mosads}Two powerful D.C. groups, American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have poured huge sums into the state to boost Tillis in the last month, and their deluge of spending has left the poorly funded Mark Harris, a Baptist minister, and Greg Brannon, a Tea Party favorite, struggling for air. 

The establishment favorite looked like he was heading to a runoff until the 11th hour. Just one month ago, Tillis was struggling to pull away in polls and was far below the 40 percent threshold in public polls. He’s avoided also any major errors, giving his opponents few opportunities to attack him.

Tillis’s campaign is preparing to win on Tuesday, though no one will say publicly they’re banking on that outcome.

“We feel we’re moving in the right direction and have a good amount of momentum,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw told The Hill. “We’re peaking at the right time. But we’re also preparing for any outcome.”

“Tillis has it. People still don’t know the other candidates,” said North Carolina politics expert John Davis. 

The race is a top priority for Republicans as they look to win back Senate control, and polls have found a tight race against Hagan in the swing state for months. 

Tillis has been the only GOP candidate with the resources to run a serious advertising campaign. He’s spent more than $1 million in the last month to cement his conservative credentials and push back on attacks coming from Democratic groups, while neither of his opponents has been able to spend significant resources on TV.  

American Crossroads spent more than $1.5 million on ads supporting Tillis in the Charlotte and Raleigh media markets (Tillis concentrated on smaller markets during the same time, effectively blanketing the state in ads), while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came in with a $750,000 ad buy for the final week of the campaign. Americans for Prosperity has also spent millions attacking Hagan. More than $12 million has already been spent either propping up Tillis or attacking Hagan.

That spending helped put Tillis in a good position to avoid a runoff, according to recent public and private polls. If he avoids one, that’ll allow him to save a lot of money and give him the luxury of turning his full attention to the freshman senator. 

“It was clear to us early on that Thom Tillis is the most conservative candidate who can beat Hagan in November and, judging from the attacks from Democrat outside groups, Harry Reid agrees with us,” Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay tells The Hill. “We made a heavy investment in the race to help Tillis in the primary, but also to help boost his name ID heading into the general election.”

A number of big-name Republicans were also working behind the scenes to help boost Tillis and freeze out his opponents.

Karl Rove, the GOP power-broker who created Crossroads, was an early supporter, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) headlined a National Republican Senatorial Committee fundraiser for Tillis in December. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) both endorsed Tillis this week, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) also fundraised for Tillis early on, though he didn’t officially endorse him.

Democratic attacks against Tillis also may have backfired in the primary.

Hagan and the Senate Majority PAC both were on the air attacking his ethics, criticizing him for giving severance packages to former staffers who’d been forced to quit after having affairs with lobbyists.

Those attacks could hurt in the general election, but some Republicans say Tillis being attacked by Democrats helped rally conservatives to his side. He sought to flip them to his advantage, running ads warning conservatives that he was being attacked by Democrats because they were afraid of him.

“The tremendous amount of money that’s been dumped into this race to defeat Tillis by the Democrats and Harry Reid. I think that’s backfired,” North Carolina state Rep. Bob Steinburg (R) told The Hill. “I think people are looking at it and saying ‘wait a minute, they wouldn’t be spending that amount unless they think Tillis can beat Hagan.’”

Hagan’s campaign argues that the attacks are working. 

“That sounds to me like they’re more than a little nervous about having to defend Tillis giving taxpayer-funded severance packages to staffers who had affairs to lobbyists,” Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told The Hill. 

Tillis’s foes have also failed to unite the conservative base, hampered by a crowded field and an expansive and expensive state where it’s very hard to build name identification. North Carolina has seven different media markets, making it hard for candidates to introduce themselves. 

Brannon has the support of Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) and FreedomWorks, while Harris is backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R). Paul will be in the state on Monday to help rally voters for Brannon. 

But it’s likely too little, too late though. After Tuesday, both Hagan and Tillis will be girding for what’s already been an expensive, negative race, observers predict. 

“I’m expecting a very dirty race in the fall,” said Catawba University Professor Michael Bitzer. “And if Tillis can reach 40 percent on Tuesday, the fall campaign will start Wednesday morning.”

Tags American Crossroads Chamber of Commerce Kay Hagan North Carolina North Carolina Senate Thom Tillis

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