- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A political committee supporting Democratic control of the U.S. Senate began running a TV commercial in North Carolina on Wednesday seeking to remind viewers about personnel issues that embarrassed the office of Republican Thom Tillis, speaker of the state House.

The Senate Majority PAC, which already has spent more than $2 million on the state’s Senate race, plans to spend nearly $1 million more on the ad targeting Tillis, one of eight Republican candidates in the May 6 primary seeking to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in the fall. Her seat is highly coveted by Republicans seeking a path to win a majority.

The ad recalls how two Tillis staff members, including his chief of staff, resigned in 2012 after Tillis announced they had inappropriate personal relationships with lobbyists. The chief of staff, also a former legislator, shared an apartment in Raleigh with Tillis. Tillis took criticism at the time for giving more than $19,000 in severance payments to the workers, which the ad called “taxpayer-paid bonuses.”

Thom Tillis - spending our money to clean up his mess,” the ad’s narrator says.

Tillis said at the time that the payments were designed in part to pay for the time they spent working unpaid at the start of his tenure as speaker in early 2011. Tillis said “serious family obligations still existed” for both ex-workers, one of whom was a single mother.

The Senate Majority PAC, which is linked to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada but barred by law from coordinating its efforts with individual candidates, said the escapades of workers in Tillis‘ office and how he handled them is fair game.

“Speaker Tillis is running for (the) Senate on his record as speaker and this is part of that record,” committee spokesman Ty Matsdorf said in an email. He said the group is spending $973,000 to run the commercial statewide.

The Tillis campaign was quick to respond.

“Harry Reid and far-left liberals hit the panic button yesterday. They have given up on propping up Kay Hagan, and they know their only chance at victory is meddling in the Republican primary. It won’t work,” campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw said. The campaign lamented Reid’s interference in the primary while sending out a fundraising email later Wednesday.

Tillis is the fundraising front-runner in the GOP race, while Hagan and outside groups like Senate Majority PAC have treated him as Hagan’s likely general election opponent. Airing the commercial before the primary could help trip up Tillis as he tries to get more than 40 percent of the vote to avoid a July runoff, which would siphon funds from a fall campaign.

Some of Tillis‘ Republicans rivals - particularly Greg Brannon and Mark Harris - have also mentioned the resignations and severance payment in fundraising letters or in polling, suggesting they raise integrity issues.

Hagan told reporters Wednesday in Durham that she didn’t know much about the ad but there are questions “when there are golden parachutes for staff members and no raises for our teachers.” Public school teachers have received pay raises in one year out of the first three years in which Tillis has been speaker, in 2012.

The Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $8.2 million nationwide on independent expenditures during the 2014 election cycle, the highest among super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The lion’s share of spending by outside groups in the Senate race has come from Republican or conservative-leaning groups, led by Americans for Prosperity. The group, which doesn’t have to disclose its donors because of the type of group it is, has run ads critical of Hagan for her support of the health care overhaul law.

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