- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis won the Republican Senate primary race Tuesday in one of several outcomes that suggests party voters may have learned the lessons of recent elections, picking establishment candidates over outsiders.

While Mr. Tillis was securing at least 40 percent of the vote required to avoid a potentially costly and unpredictable July runoff election, House Speaker John A. Boehner rolled to victory in his primary, successfully fending off a pair of tea party backed challengers in Ohio.

With 84 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. Tillis led the eight-person field with 45 percent of the vote, followed by obstetrician Greg Brannon with 27.4 percent and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor, with 17.7 percent.

Mr. Tillis will face Sen. Kay Hagan, who easily won her Democratic primary and is a top GOP target in the November election.

The Associated Press called the race for Mr. Boehner about an hour after the Ohio polls closed, putting the Republican a step closer to securing his 13th term in Congress and to seeking a third term as speaker.

“I am humbled to have such strong support from the people of the 8th Congressional District, and I look forward to continuing to lead the U.S. House in addressing our shared priorities of jobs and the economy,” Mr. Boehner said in a statement. “With better solutions I know we can break America free from the Obama economy’s sluggish growth.”

In some of the other most-watched Republican primary contests, Rep. Renee Ellmers, who represents North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, defeated Frank Roche, who attacked her support of immigration reform.

Rep. Walter Jones defeated Taylor Griffin in North Carolina’s 3rd congressional district, while freshman Rep. David Joyce outpolled state Rep. Matt Lynch, a tea party challenger, in Ohio’s 14th congressional district primary contest.

In Indiana, Rep. Susan Brooks was declared the winner in her race against David Stockdale in Indiana’s 5th Congressional District.

On the Democratic side, “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken was clinging to a lead in his three-way primary in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District.

Heading into the night, several of the Republican races had been cast as the first of a series of high-profile primary battles between the picks of the Republican establishment and those of groups aligned with the tea party.

That was crystallized on the eve of the North Carolina election in 2012 when presidential nominee Mitt Romney endorsed Mr. Tillis and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and tea party favorite, headlined a rally for Mr. Brannon.

But the support for Mr. Tillis’ rivals never reached the fevered pitch that helped propel tea partyers to victory in the 2010 election cycle, as grass-roots activists were divided between Mr. Brannon, a libertarian, and Mr. Harris, a Baptist pastor who was endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, also a former minister.

Mr. Tillis, meanwhile, received support from Mr. Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Outside groups also funneled more than $5.1 million into the race in favor of Mr. Tillis, including more than $1.6 million from Bush political adviser Karl Rove’s American Crossroads group. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also ran pro-Tillis spots in the run-up to the election.

Outside Democrats groups also have spent millions of dollars to campaign against Mr. Tillis.

Dee Stewart, a Republican strategist in Raleigh, said the party has learned from election cycles in which seats were lost in races that many political observers believed were prime pickup opportunities.

“The Republicans would control the U.S. Senate today if we had nominated better candidates in previous cycles,” Mr. Stewart said.

He dismissed the claim by his rivals that Mr. Tillis lacks conservative credentials. “Tillis is not a moderate,” he said.

The Ohio result, meanwhile, was a disappointment for the Tea Party Leadership Fund, which held an open call for candidates to run against Mr. Boehner and settled on J.D. Winteregg.

Mr. Winteregg’s campaign failed to gain much traction but did win a slew of headlines for an ad, “When the Moment Is Right,” which parodied ads for erectile dysfunction drugs and cast Mr. Boehner as a conservative sellout suffering from “electile dysfunction.”

There are still questions about whether Mr. Boehner can survive as speaker after coming under increasing fire from tea party adherents over spending and debt deals.

Tea party groups, including the Tea Party Patriots, are calling on rank-and-file lawmakers to take the gavel out of his hands next year. Mr. Boehner survived a similar challenge in 2013 when he was narrowly elected speaker of the 113th Congress.

Political attention now will turn to the primary contests next week in Nebraska and West Virginia.

West Virginia is viewed as a strong pickup opportunity for Republicans with the retirement of Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV.

Mr. McConnell will face off May 20 against Louisville businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky, and voters in Arkansas will select a Republican candidate to run against Sen. Mark L. Pryor, another vulnerable Democrat.

The same day, Georgians will cast votes in the seven-member race to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican.

If no candidate secures 50 percent of the vote in Georgia, the top two candidates will head to a July runoff.

Sen. Thad Cochran is running for a sixth term against state Sen. Chris McDaniel in the June 3 Mississippi primary, Sen. Lindsey Graham is fighting for the nomination in a crowded South Carolina June 10 primary and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas is running for a fourth term against in the Aug. 5 primary against Milton Wolf, a physician .

The results will set the table for the general election, and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics predicts that Republicans will pick up four to eight Senate seats in the fall election.

A CNN/ORC poll released this week showed that Republicans hold a razor-thin edge over Democrats among registered voters nationwide in the generic ballot. Democrats have a 55 to 45 seat majority in the Senate, but are defending 21 of the 36 seats in the fall election. Several of those seats are in states that President Obama lost to Mr. Romney in 2012.

Mr. Obama won North Carolina in the 2008 election, but the state has since moved to the right. Republicans won both chambers of the state legislature in the 2010 election, giving them control for the first time in a century.

That may not bode well for Mrs. Hagan, who is running neck and neck with Mr. Tillis, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Campaign finance reports show that Mrs. Hagan has raised more than $13.2 million for her re-election bid and has more than $8.6 million in cash on hand.

Mr. Tillis has close to $1.1 million in the bank after pulling in more than $3.2 million

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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