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Tillis Takes N.C. Primary in Win for GOP Establishment

Tillis Takes N.C. Primary in Win for GOP Establishment

By Scott Conroy - May 7, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In a significant victory for the Republican establishment, which has aggressively sought to beat back challenges from Tea Party-aligned candidates, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis won the U.S. Senate primary outright here on Tuesday.

Tillis garnered 45.7 percent of the vote, easily clearing the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff that would have initiated a costly intra-party battle preceding his general election matchup against incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

Greg Brannon -- a Tea Party favorite who was joined at a rally here Monday by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- trailed badly with 27.1 percent of the vote. Baptist pastor Mark Harris was third with 17.6 percent. 

During his primary night victory speech here, Tillis looked forward to the race against Hagan, who is among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats running for re-election this year.

“Y’all excited?” he asked the cheering crowd inside a hotel ballroom in downtown Charlotte. “Just think about how excited we’ll all be when we’re seeing the results in November!”

Credited with helping to usher in and solidify Republican control of state-level government in recent years, Tillis’ conservative credentials in the race were strong.  But his two major GOP opponents tried to outflank him on the right and paint him as a middle-of-the-road member of the party establishment.

In the end, that ploy did not work.

Tillis was endorsed by 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush -- a favorite of many top GOP donors, who hope the former Florida governor will enter the 2016 White House fray.

The newly minted North Carolina nominee also had a huge fundraising advantage over his Republican opponents -- aided, in part, by the backing of well-heeled groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads.

Now, Tillis will have several months to replenish his campaign coffers. In that endeavor, he will have plenty of help from outside the state.  

Republicans need to net six seats in November to take control of the Senate, and North Carolina has long been near the top of their pickup list.

Democrats, meanwhile, had been anticipating Tillis’ victory before Tuesday’s results came in, with both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Hagan campaign launching preemptive attacks against him.

In a public memo released earlier on Tuesday, the Hagan team portrayed Tillis as an “unelectable” arch-conservative whose record does not align with the values of this recently minted swing state.

“Over the next 6 months, Tillis will be forced to defend his divisive and offensive remarks, his abysmal, anti-middle-class record in Raleigh, his newest slew of fringe positions, and his heavy load of ethical baggage,” the Hagan memo said.

Hagan was elected to her first term in 2008, part of the Democratic wave that gave Barack Obama a win in North Carolina on his way to being elected president.

But despite the much tougher political climate this year, and a midterm electorate that figures to lean Republican, Hagan is regarded on both sides as a strong campaigner.  

In the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls, she leads Tillis by a slim 0.8 percentage points among likely general election voters.

Notably, Tillis told his election night supporters that Harris had called to concede the race, but he did not mention Brannon -- his closest competitor in the primary -- in a potential signal of lasting friction between the two candidates.

Vowing to his supporters that he would go to Washington to “clean up Kay Hagan’s mess,” a jubilant Tillis sought to present the upcoming general election as a referendum on national Democrats.

“You all know what I know,” he told supporters. “Kay Hagan and Harry Reid are nothing but an echo chamber for President Obama’s worst ideas.”

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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