- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2014

The biggest question looming over North Carolina’s GOP Senate primary on Tuesday is whether state House Speaker Thom Tillis can gain enough support to win the nomination outright and shift all of his attention to Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the more vulnerable Democrats in the midterm elections.

The latest polls show that Mr. Tillis holds a double-digit lead over his closest competitor in the crowded race, libertarian Greg Brannon, but the jury is out on whether that will translate into capturing the four in ten voters that he needs to avoid a runoff race in July, which would change the contours of the primary and general election races overnight.

“A lot of people are trying to work out whether Tillis will get the 40 percent,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State. “That is the ultimate question.”

The GOP’s chance of taking over the chamber could hinge on defeating Mrs. Hagan, who is seeking her second six-year term in the upper chamber after defeating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the 2008 election.

“The Republicans could win the Senate without North Carolina, and the Democrats could keep it without North Carolina, but in all likelihood North Carolina is as good a bet as any state to elect a senator to the next Senate majority party,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

On Monday, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney endorsed Mr. Tillis, following in the footsteps of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Thom is a conservative who has been solving problems in North Carolina as speaker of the House and I am confident he will do the same in Washington,” Mr. Romney said.

The primary contest is being cast as latest front in the ongoing battle that pits the GOP establishment and tea partyers and grass-roots conservatives over the future direction of the party.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite and likely 2016 presidential contender, headlined a rally for Mr. Brannon at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, telling the crowd that the status quo has gotten too strong.

“The Leviathan has gotten too large,” Mr. Paul said, according to news reports. “As we stand here, the debt clock is spiraling out of control. Send us a champion. Send us a hero. Send us a dragon slayer,”

The race in North Carolina is the first of a handful of Senate primary races this month that could put the GOP on a path to win the net six seats it needs to flip control of the Senate. It also features Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor from Charlotte who received the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and who led the successful 2012 effort to pass a constitutional amendment that reinforced the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

For their part, the Hagan camp and its allies would be happy to have Mr. Tillis get into a drawn out primary fight against the likes of Mr. Brannon, a staunch libertarian who could fuse together elements of the tea party and grass-roots conservatives.

“It would bog [Tillis] down in an expensive and long runoff and would pull him further to the right; it also would introduce the real possibility of the GOP nominating a bad general election candidate,” Mr. Kondik said.

The latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission shows Mrs. Hagan has raised more than $13.2 million for her re-election bid, and has more than $8.6 million cash on hand.

Mr. Tillis has raised more than $3.2 million and has more than $1 million in the bank.

Mr. Brannon has raised $1.2 million and had $61,875 cash on hand.

Voters in Indiana and Ohio also will head to the polls on Tuesday to tap their party’s nominees for a series of House seats that will be up for grabs in November, including GOP House Speaker John A. Boehner, who appears poised to cruise to re-election, but who has come under fire from tea party groups that want him replaced as speaker.

But most of the eyes of the political world will be focused on the race in North Carolina, where the latest polls show that Mr. Tillis holds a 22.5 percent lead over Mr. Brannon.

Polls suggest that whoever wins the GOP nomination will give Mrs. Hagan a run for her money, with both Mr. Tillis and Mr. Brannon running neck-and-neck with her in hypothetical match ups.

“It is a toss up,” Mr. Taylor said.

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