Chamber-Backed Tillis Thwarts Tea Party in North Carolina

Republican Thom Tillis avoided a potentially expensive and divisive runoff by winning his party’s U.S. Senate nomination in North Carolina, a victory that allows him to focus on a November race against vulnerable Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, was backed by television ads paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Washington-based groups in his race against Dr. Greg Brannon, a Tea-Party aligned candidate, and six others.

Today’s primary was the first of several over the next month that will show the threat that candidates backed by the limited-government Tea Party movement pose to more traditional Republicans. Such infighting has spurred worries among some Republican leaders that -- as in 2010 and 2012 -- it could result in weak general-election candidates and undercut the party’s quest for a Senate majority.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the Senate, and North Carolina is seen as one of the key states 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 92 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press tally. Brannon, an obstetrician, had 27 percent, while Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor, was running third with 18 percent.

Obama Link

Tillis quickly made clear a strategy of hammering Hagan by tying her to President Barack Obama.

“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 issued after his victory.

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 94 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.

In Ohio’s primary today, House Speaker John Boehner easily won nomination for a 13th term against three challengers in the Republican contest. Though that outcome was expected, Boehner’s 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.

Proxy Fight

The Senate primary in North Carolina 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.

Rove’s Group

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.

Still, fundraisers he held late last year with Rove turned off some Tea Party activists.

Koch Brothers

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.

Presidential Results

Romney narrowly carried North Carolina in 2012 after President Barack Obama won it by a small margin in his successful 2008 White House race.

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 Inc. and Citigroup Inc.

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 near Raleigh, Clay Aiken -- the singer-songwriter who first won fame as the 2003 runner-up on television’s “American Idol” performance program -- sought 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 96 percent of precincts reporting in the AP tally. Toni Morris was running a distant third.

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