- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - House Speaker Thom Tillis defeated candidates backed strongly by the tea party and Christian conservatives Tuesday to win North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, setting up a November election against politically vulnerable Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

Tillis, who was backed by national Republican notables Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell, defeated seven other GOP candidates. He avoided a costly summer runoff that would have siphoned funds from the general election campaign by receiving more than 40 percent of the vote.

With almost three-quarters of the precincts reporting, Tillis received 45 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. Obstetrician and tea party favorite Greg Brannon of Cary, who was endorsed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, was second at 27 percent, with Baptist minister Mark Harris, of Charlotte, next at 18 percent. The first-term Hagan cruised to her own primary victory against two lesser-known opponents, receiving 77 percent of the vote, unofficial results show. Libertarian Sean Haugh also won a rare Senate primary for his party.

Tillis‘ victory now sets up a grand general election battle with Hagan, whose campaign and her Democratic allies tried to trip up in recent weeks with mailers and radio and television ads.

Tillis, giving his nomination victory speech, continued his criticism of Hagan, saying she’s too closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and has failed to halt President Barack Obama’s most destructive policies, chiefly the federal health care overhaul. Hagan voted for the law.

“Our republic was founded on separate but equal branches, a system with checks and balances,” Tillis told cheering supporters at a Charlotte hotel. “But Kay Hagan hasn’t provided any balance whatsoever when it’s come to having a check on Obama. She’s done nothing but abandoned her post for the last six years.”

While Tillis promoted on the campaign trail the Republican agenda in Raleigh of lowering taxes and regulations and passing abortion restrictions, Hagan’s campaign pointed out the same agenda as one that cut education, refused to expand Medicaid coverage and help pass an unemployment insurance law that eliminated federal benefits for the long-term unemployed. Hagan also has tried to link Tillis to conservative financiers who have bankrolled groups that have run anti-Hagan ads.

Hagan has portrayed herself as a middle-of-the-road U.S. senator who fights for the middle class and veterans and would prevent out-of-state conservatives from essentially buying a Senate seat with their ads criticizing her.

“This election is a simple choice between two very different records. Thom Tillis has spent his time in Raleigh pushing a special interest agenda that has rigged the system against middle-class families,” Hagan said in a news release. She added: “North Carolinians know that I am the only candidate in this race who will put our state’s needs ahead of what the special interests want.”

The Republican race was billed as an early test of the tea party’s staying power in national politics against someone like Tillis. He is the leading fundraiser in the GOP and supported by Republican strategist Karl Rove, a political enemy of the tea party.

Tillis ran on his legislative record as an architect of the Republican takeover of state government starting in 2011. Harris, who was endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Brannon suggested Tillis was too moderate and unelectable in the fall due to political baggage he’s held while speaker.

At a polling place at a Charlotte high school, Foster Whitney, 25, said Tuesday that Tillis is the type of politician she thinks can continue to make things better in North Carolina - a conservative who isn’t too far to the right.

“I want to see someone in Washington whose beliefs are more in line with my own,” she said.

Alan Myers, 34, of Charlotte, chose Brannon because of his strong anti-abortion position and unwavering support for conservative issues. “He has tremendous grassroots support and would energize the base,” Myers said. “And that’s what the party needs: People going out, knocking on doors, telling their friends, getting out the vote.

Tillis and other Republicans said Hagan and a PAC backing Senate Democrats were trying to torpedo Tillis‘ candidacy and get a perceived weaker nominee, pointing to similar schemes in Nevada in 2010 and Missouri in 2012. Tillis has benefited from millions of dollars in advertising from outside groups critical of Hagan, particularly for her support of the federal health care overhaul law.

By receiving endorsements from National Right to Life and the National Rifle Association, Tillis was able to advertise credentials seen as favorable by potential supporters of Harris and Brannon. Harris is the former president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention and was a chief spokesman for a group that worked successfully to get the 2012 constitutional amendment passed banning gay marriage. But even Tillis had a role in the amendment, leading the House when it agreed to put the amendment on the statewide ballot.

Democrat Marian Bendixsen, 82, of Cary, voted for Hagan in the Democratic primary, saying she hasn’t done anything that she would fail to agree with for the most part. “I think she’s been doing a fine job as far as I can tell,” she said.

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