Paul Pushes for N.C. Upset in "War" vs. GOP Establishment

Paul Pushes for N.C. Upset in "War" vs. GOP Establishment
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, Rand Paul's bet on a longshot failed to pay off.

The Kentucky senator is hoping to have better luck in North Carolina on Tuesday after getting behind another underdog. This gamble, however, could have consequences more significant than who will win the state’s GOP Senate primary; at stake are Paul’s efforts to position himself for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Paul made a last-minute trip here to appear at a rally outside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on behalf of Greg Brannon. A fellow physician and Tea Party favorite, Brannon is battling against the GOP establishment-backed candidate, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, and the Rev. Mark Harris, whose base is evangelical voters. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November.

Tillis is the frontrunner, having significantly outpaced both of his major competitors on the fundraising front, but he must win 40 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s primary to avoid a resources-draining July 15 runoff against either Brannon or Harris.

According to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average, Tillis stands at 39.5 percent of the vote with Brannon coming in second place at 24 percent and Harris in third at 15 percent.

Tillis has earned endorsements from Republican establishment figures including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads providing air cover.

GOP strategists eager to pivot to the general election against the vulnerable Hagan have pressed the case that it is time for the party to unite behind the frontrunner.

But Paul, who won his own upset victory in a 2010 Senate primary against an establishment Republican, isn’t ready to join the fold.

“There’s a little bit of a war going on,” he said of the Tea Party vs. establishment fight in an interview with RealClearPolitics. “I don’t know who wins in the end.”

When the circumstances have called for it, Paul has been willing to calibrate with long-term political benefit in mind, as he has done in providing a full-throated backing of fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell in the Senate minority leader’s primary battle against Tea Party-aligned challenger Matt Bevin.

But despite warnings from Republicans that a failure to rally behind Tillis might boost Hagan’s chances of retaining her seat in November, Paul endorsed Brannon in October.

Paul said that he and his advisers decided to schedule the last-minute trip here “because we think Greg has a chance,” noting that Brannon’s odds of winning would improve in a run-off setting and shrugging off the suggestion that the first-time candidate would be a weaker general election candidate than Tillis, who has made electability a central tenet of his campaign.

“They said the same about me,” Paul said. “People say that because it’s a way to attack, but I think not being a career politician is a real asset. I think a lot of independent voters like the idea of someone not being a career politician. Frankly, physicians are more trustworthy than politicians.”

Tillis and Harris, whose most prominent backer is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also campaigned around the Charlotte area on Monday.

But there is no doubt that Paul’s appearance at the Brannon rally on a hot and sunny afternoon provided a late shot of adrenaline and some important in-state media attention to the underfunded contender.  

Referring to Brannon as a “dragon slayer,” Paul suggested to the crowd of a couple hundred on hand that there was only one across-the-board constitutionalist in the race.

“I’m here today because Greg Brannon is a believer, and we need true believers in Congress,” Paul said. “We’ve got enough of Democrat-lite out there.”

For his part, Brannon returned the favor by making a prediction about Paul’s political future.

“How about our next president, President Paul?” he said to loud cheers.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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