The Tea Party lost the first round.
In North Carolina and Ohio yesterday, the limited government movement suffered losses in the first in a series of Republican primary contests on tap in the coming month.
Thom Tillis, in the day’s marquee race, avoided a potentially expensive and divisive runoff by beating a Tea-Party-aligned candidate to win the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in North Carolina. The win allows him to focus on a November race against vulnerable Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
“Senator Hagan has supported President Obama’s failed agenda every step of the way, and her liberal voting record is simply out of touch with North Carolina,” he said in a statement after his victory that underscored his strategy of hammering Hagan by tying her to President Barack Obama.
In Ohio, an effort to send a message to House Speaker John Boehner -- sometimes at odds with his chamber’s Tea Party adherents -- fell flat as he trounced three opponents in a Cincinnati-area Republican primary. A more serious effort to unseat a Boehner ally elsewhere in Ohio also failed.
Tillis, the speaker of North Carolina’s House, was backed by television ads paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Washington-based groups in his race against Greg Brannon, the race’s main Tea Party contender, and six others.
Yesterday’s primaries will be followed by others into early June that will show the threat that Tea Party candidates pose to traditional Republicans. Such infighting has spurred worries among Republican leaders that -- as in 2010 and 2012 -- it could result in weak general-election candidates and undercut their quest for a Senate majority.
The party needs a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, and North Carolina is considered a key state in the national battle. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates Hagan’s bid for a second term as a “tossup.”
Needing at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid a mid-July runoff, Tillis had 45 percent, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, according to an Associated Press tally. Brannon, an obstetrician, had 27 percent, while Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor, was running third with 18 percent.
In North Carolina’s U.S. House primaries, 10-term Republican Representative Walter Jones -- known for his political independence -- defeated a challenger whose financial backers included Wall Street firms. Jones, who had 51 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting, is the only Republican left in the House who voted for the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that toughened financial industry regulations.
Though Boehner’s nomination to a 13th term in Ohio was expected, his campaign spent more than $1.1 million on television commercials in the first 16 days of April, according to data from the Federal Election Commission and New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
With all precincts reporting, Boehner had 69 percent of the vote to 22 percent for his closest competitor, J.D. Winteregg. Those supporting Winteregg, a high school French teacher, included the Tea Party Leadership Fund.
In a northeast Ohio district, freshman Representative David Joyce faced a tougher Tea Party-fueled threat in the Republican primary. With backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Joyce won 55 percent of the vote to 45 percent for state lawmaker Matt Lynch, with all precincts reporting.
North Carolina’s Senate primary pitted two leading Republicans against one another by proxy -- Kentucky U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul.
McConnell, the Senate minority leader who faces his own Tea Party challenger in a May 20 primary, backed Tillis. Paul, a prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidate, endorsed Brannon and appeared with him at a rally the day before the election.
Also backing Brannon was FreedomWorks, a Washington-based small-government advocacy group. It branded Tillis, a former partner at business consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers, as “Big Business Tillis.”
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, another potential contender in the Republican presidential race, were among other Tillis supporters. And the state’s business community joined the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce in rallying behind Tillis. The North Carolina Chamber gave him a 96 percent rating on votes the group tracked in 2013.
Outside groups that backed Tillis sought to claim some of the credit for his win. Those entities included American Crossroads, a super-political action committee affiliated with Karl Rove, former President George W. Bush’s key political adviser.
“Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda,” Crossroads chief executive officer Steven Law, said in a statement.
Crossroads spent a total of $1.6 million on television ads in North Carolina during the race’s final month, Law said.
Tillis, 53, sought to balance such support while stressing that he backed many Tea Party goals and its anti-Washington instincts. Since he became speaker in January 2011, North Carolina has cut taxes and spending, passed an amendment that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and enacted some of the nation’s strictest voting requirements.
Even so, fundraisers he held late last year with Rove turned off some Tea Party activists.
Polls have shown Hagan, 60, will face a tight race against Tillis. She’s been targeted for attack in a steady flow of ads financed by Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch.
Democrats were quick to engage with the Republican nominee.
“Thom Tillis spent this primary moving far to the right, embracing positions that, paired with his record, make him a deeply flawed candidate,” Michael Czin, the Democratic National Committee’s press secretary, said in a statement.
Scott Reed, a political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, estimated that if the Republican primary had been forced into a runoff, $15 million to $20 million would have been funneled into that race, undercutting resources that could go to defeating Hagan. She won her seat in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote, defeating Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole.
Romney narrowly carried North Carolina in 2012 after Obama won it by a small margin in his successful 2008 White House bid.
The state’s unemployment rate was 6.3 percent in March, below the national rate of 6.7 percent that month. The North Carolina rate is well below its recent-history peak of 11.3 percent in early 2010.
In North Carolina’s 3rd U.S. House district, which hugs the Atlantic coastline, Jones faced off against Taylor Griffin, a former U.S. Treasury aide in President George W. Bush’s administration whose donors included billionaire Paul Singer and the political action committees of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. Griffin got 45 percent of the vote, while a third candidate had 4 percent.
Jones, 71, gained national attention in the early 2000s when, as a backer of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he pushed to have the French fries served in congressional cafeterias “Freedom” fries after France opposed the war. Within a few years, he became one of the war’s most vocal Republican opponents.
In the state’s 2nd U.S. House District near Raleigh, Clay Aiken -- the singer-songwriter who first won fame as the 2003 runner-up on television’s “American Idol” program -- appeared on the cusp of winning the Democratic nomination to run against two-term Republican Renee Ellmers.
In the three-person race, Aiken had 41 percent of the vote -- just barely what he would need to avoid a runoff -- and Keith Crisco 39 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting in the AP tally. A victor hadn’t been declared as of early today, though, with the returns remaining unofficial.