North Carolina Senate primary: GOP establishment fights back against tea party

Republican forces eager to defeat Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan have rallied around state House Speaker Thom Tillis. The tea party faces uphill fight in Ohio, too.

Chuck Burton/AP
Republican senatorial candidate Thom Tillis (r.) greets a supporter before a debate at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., last month.

Primary season kicks off in earnest Tuesday, with contests in three states: North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana.

At center stage is the Republican primary for US Senate in North Carolina, where the GOP establishment, tea party, and Christian conservatives are duking it out for the chance to take on freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D). Senator Hagan is one of the most vulnerable Democrats this cycle in a state that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and has been trending conservative ever since.

Hagan’s defeat is crucial to Republicans’ hopes of taking over the Senate in November. But Hagan and national Democrats are on the case, with strong fundraising.

The Republican establishment has rallied around state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who faces seven primary competitors. If Speaker Tillis can take at least 40 percent of the primary vote Tuesday, he will avoid a runoff – and can immediately get to work campaigning against Hagan. If not, he will face a runoff on July 15, likely against tea-party-backed obstetrician Greg Brannon.

But the Republican powers-that-be want nothing to do with a runoff, which drags out their intraparty battle and raises Democrats’ hopes that an insurgent could win the primary – the kind of candidate who makes off-the-wall statements and has cost the GOP Senate seats in the past two elections. The US Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-affiliated "super political action committee," are backing Tillis, as is Gov. Pat McCrory (R), 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and potential 2016 contender Jeb Bush.

Dr. Brannon is backed by tea party Sens. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky and Mike Lee (R) of Utah, as well as national tea party groups FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots. A third candidate, the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, is backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Tillis had struggled to break away from the pack, but in late April, Public Policy Polling showed him surging to 46 percent. Brannon polled second at 20 percent, and Mr. Harris was third at 11 percent.

"Thom Tillis will win the primary outright, and he will win decisively," veteran North Carolina GOP media strategist Marc Rotterman told John Gizzi of Newsmax. "And this will make North Carolina 'ground zero' in the battle for the Republican majority in the Senate." 


There are no competitive statewide primaries, but two House primaries are worth watching. First is House Speaker John Boehner’s primary in the Dayton area. Speaker Boehner is expected to win his primary easily, but the question is by how much. One competitor, a tea party-oriented French teacher, won national notice for a racy ad accusing Boehner of “electile dysfunction.”

Boehner, a 24-year veteran of the House, has expressed exasperation over unruly tea partyers in his caucus. And for the first time in four years, he is running campaign ads. 

“That race has become symbolic nationally,” says John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics in Akron, Ohio. “Boehner doesn’t want articles to be written saying, ‘Well, he won, but he got the lowest margin in 12 years.’ ”

In the opposite corner of the state, in the Akron-Cleveland area, is the state’s most lively House primary. Freshman Rep. David Joyce (R) faces challenge from tea party-backed state Rep. Mike Lynch (R). Congressman Joyce is the hand-picked successor to former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R), who retired and launched a super PAC, called Defending Main Street, aimed at helping centrist Republicans defeat tea party challengers.

Mr. LaTourette, before and after leaving Congress, has been a vocal opponent of the tea party, and appears regularly on TV and at forums debating tea party-oriented leaders.

The other wrinkle in the race is that LaTourette’s daughter, Sarah LaTourette, filed right before the deadline to run for the state legislative district currently held by Mr. Lynch. It was then that Lynch filed to run against Joyce.

Lynch is running against Mr. LaTourette as much as he is against Joyce, the congressman he hopes to defeat. Democrats are standing by, hoping for a Lynch victory in the primary, so they can take him on in the general.

“If Lynch wins the primary, national tea party groups would celebrate,” says Mr. Green.

But can he win? Turnout is likely to be low, given the lack of competitive statewide primaries. So that gives an edge to the most motivated voters. Enter the tea party.

“Tea party activists are pretty excited, because they see an opportunity to win a seat,” says Green. “But the Joyce campaign is taking the challenge from Lynch very, very seriously. Joyce is spending a lot of money, and local Republicans are mobilizing support.”


The primaries in the Hoosier State seem to be a rather sleepy affair. Finance reports for the first quarter of 2014 showed that no primary challengers for US House seats had much money in the bank. By mid-April, campaigns that had made public their totals showed the top challenger was a tea party-oriented insurance broker named David Stockdale, one of two GOP challengers to freshman Rep. Susan Brooks (R).

But Mr. Stockdale had raised less than $17,000 and had just over $5,000 in the bank at the end of March.

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