No joy for tea party in early round of GOP primaries, including N. Carolina

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) turned back a tea party challenger Tuesday in the state's GOP primary for US Senate. Republicans hope to pick up that seat in November, on the way to winning Senate control.

Chuck Burton/AP
Thom Tillis waves to supporters at a election night rally in Charlotte, N.C., after winning the Republican nomination for the US Senate Tuesday, May 6, 2014.

The Republican establishment is breathing a collective sigh of relief after Tuesday’s victory by Thom Tillis – speaker of the House in North Carolina – in the state’s GOP primary for US Senate.

Speaker Tillis won 46 percent of the vote, beating seven other competitors, including two insurgent candidates with high-profile support. By topping 40 percent, Tillis avoids a divisive, costly runoff in July. He can now focus immediately on defeating freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D), one of the Democrats’ most vulnerable senators in the November elections.

“Tillis is definitely the most electable among the field,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But it’s not time to pop the champagne. Kentucky and Georgia are next.”

In the Kentucky primary, on May 20, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) looks set to defeat his tea party challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. But in Georgia, also on May 20, the GOP primary for the seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) features a crowded field with no clear frontrunner – and appears headed for a July runoff. Some of the candidates are far-right conservatives with a history of making provocative statements. The Democrats have a strong likely nominee in nonprofit CEO Michelle Nunn.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take over the Senate, and can ill-afford to lose any seats they currently hold. The GOP establishment is also loathe to see the party squander pickup opportunities by nominating undisciplined or hard-line candidates who make comments that turn off general election voters.

“No more Todd Akins” is the party’s mantra in 2014, a reference to the former Missouri congressman who lost his US Senate race in 2012 after a comment about “legitimate rape.”

In North Carolina, establishment Republicans feared another Akin in libertarian tea party candidate Greg Brannon, a physician who last year likened food stamps to slavery, among other provocative assertions. Dr. Brannon came in second Tuesday with 27 percent. Charlotte, N.C., pastor Mark Harris came in third with 18 percent.

North Carolina also became a surrogate battleground for possible presidential contenders in 2016. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed Tillis (as did 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney), Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky appeared at a rally Monday for Brannon. And former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee endorsed his fellow Baptist minister, Mr. Harris.

But for Tillis, support throughout the primary from outside Republican groups was likely more valuable. The US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads spent millions running ads touting Tillis. The fact that he got only 46 percent in the primary means he has some work ahead to rally the party around him, but there are early signs he can succeed. Just hours after the results were in, Senator Paul endorsed Tillis.

Senator Hagan also wasted no time slamming her general election opponent. As soon as the Associated Press called the race, she issued a statement: “Thom Tillis has spent his time in Raleigh pushing a special interest agenda that has rigged the system against middle-class families.”

In other primaries Tuesday:

• US House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio easily survived a primary challenge from two tea party candidates. Speaker Boehner won 69 percent of the vote, and J.D. Winteregg, the tea party challenger best known for his racy, viral ad against the speaker, got 22 percent. But Boehner did not coast during the primary. He ran an ad for the first time in four years and made some campaign appearances in his district, which is near Cincinnati and Dayton. The speaker faces token Democratic opposition in November.

• Clay Aiken, the singer who rose to fame on “American Idol,” won the Democratic primary for the US House in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. He won 40.8 percent of the vote, barely avoiding a runoff. In November, Mr. Aiken faces Rep. Renee Ellmers (R) in a district that favors Republicans.

• Freshman Rep. David Joyce (R) of Ohio survived a spirited challenge from tea party-backed state Rep. Matt Lynch (R), winning 55 percent to 45 percent. The race was noteworthy, because the former congressman for that district – Steve LaTourette – was as much an object of tea party scorn during the campaign as was Congressman Joyce, Mr. LaTourette’s hand-picked successor. After retiring from Congress, LaTourette launched a "super PAC," called Defending Main Street, aimed at helping centrist Republicans. LaTourette, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the American Hospital Association all invested heavily on behalf of Joyce.

• Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina also withstood a tough primary challenge. He defeated former Bush administration official Taylor Griffin, 51 percent to 45 percent. Congressman Jones, who has served 10 terms in Congress, is a maverick who turned against the war in Iraq and has voted against GOP budgets. His district includes Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

• State Rep. Alma Adams won the Democratic primary for the House seat vacated by Rep. Mel Watt (D) of North Carolina when he joined the Obama administration. In fact, Representative Adams won two victories: the nomination for the special election to fill the remainder of Mr. Watt’s term and the primary for the general election. Adams is expected to win both races, which will be held simultaneously on Nov. 4.

• Former state Sen. David Rouzer won the Republican primary in North Carolina’s Seventh District. The district’s current congressman, Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), is retiring, and the seat is likely to go Republican in November.

• Notre Dame Prof. Joe Bock won the Democratic primary to face freshman Rep. Jackie Walorski (R) of Indiana. The Cook Political Report rates the race “lean Republican.”

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