In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Rand Paul Knighted 'Akin 2.0' In North Carolina Senate Race

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Earlier in the week, a Public Policy Polling survey found Tillis tied with Brannon in the GOP primary. The poll found Tillis and Brannon with 14 percent support each followed by nurse practitioner Heather Grant with 11 percent. None of the other Republican candidates in the race that were also included in the poll of the primary earned single digits.

That's a big leap for Brannon who came in as a fringe tea party candidate. The day the poll was released Brannon sent out a fundraising email titled "Tied for the Lead."

"This is a testament to the hard work of our grassroots team across the state," Brannon said in the fundraising email.

Brannon has also been endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), FreedomWorks, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). So here is a Republican primary candidate who's been endorsed by powerful tea party favorites, is on the rise in polling, and has a nice list of knocks against him that Democrats will quickly exploit in a general matchup. In other words, Brannon is the kind of candidate national Republicans worry could lose a winnable Senate seat.

Observers say Tillis is vulnerable and Brannon has appeal among hard-right Republican voters that will make up a big chunk of the GOP voting primary electorate in this race.

"I think a lot of people have been waiting and expecting the Republican Party to coalesce around Thom Tillis and it hasn't happened and the real question is is it gonna happen?" said Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson.

Jackson said the reality of this primary is that it's going to be a "low turnout primary, that it's going to be a very conservative primary."

And if Brannon does win the nomination, Republicans could easily have another Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) situation on their hands.

"This could very easily be Missouri all over again," Jackson said.

Still, Brannon hasn't earned the love of every single tea party group just yet. Brannon has filled out the survey for the deep-pocketed Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), Brannon campaign manager Reilly O'Neal told TPM. The survey usually comes before an endorsement.

"We've met with them and have a lot of respect for them but haven't heard anything other than that," O'Neal said.

If Brannon did win the nomination, it might give Hagan, who badly needs a break in a tough re-election fight where she's been battered by outside conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, an opening. Hagan's campaign won't say whether it would prefer Brannon over Tillis (who has been the target of most of the senator's attacks during the campaign).

"No matter who emerges from the chaotic Republican primary, they won't be able to defend their fringe positions to shut down the government, cut off access to women's health care, or oppose a minimum wage increase, which is a contrast to Kay's bipartisan track record of commonsense results for North Carolina," Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told TPM.

The Brannon campaign expects that Hagan will start focusing more on Brannon soon.

"We do expect Hagan to start aiming fire at us, here in the near future, yes," O'Neal said.

With both Tillis and Hagan, the Brannon campaign strategy is to focus on Obamacare. In talking to TPM O'Neal cited Tillis saying that Obamacare is a "great idea that can't be paid for" (Tillis later walked back those remarks). And on Hagan, O'Neal described her as the "deciding vote" on Obamacare who probably hasn't read most of the legislation.

But for now, O'Neal said the message Brannon's campaign was focused on is that "Thom Tillis cannot be trusted to stand up for North Carolinians against overreaches and for the conservative principles that the Republican Party stands for."

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About The Author

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Daniel Strauss is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. He was previously a breaking news reporter for The Hill newspaper and has written for Politico, Roll Call, The American Prospect, and Gaper's Block. He has also interned at Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and The New Yorker. Daniel grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in History. At Michigan he helped edit Consider, a weekly opinion magazine. He can be reached at daniel@talkingpointsmemo.com.