The North Carolina Senate race — a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans — has shaped up to be a bit messier than it probably should be.
With a little more than a month before the Senate primary, the GOP still lacks a de facto nominee. There’s a social conservative favorite, Rev. Mark Harris; a Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)-backed candidate, Dr. Greg Brannon; and a GOP-backed establishment candidate who’s supposed to have locked up the whole thing by now, State House Speaker Thom Tillis, among others. Most observers say Tillis is the frontrunner, but he’s far from a lock on the nomination and there’s a chance he could be pushed to a runoff.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the person who is best positioned to defeat Kay Hagan is Thom Tillis,” North Carolina-based Republican strategist Brian Nick told TPM. “And he’s the best candidate in the Republican field and the Democrats are certainly cheering on someone else to possibly pull off an upset.”
Thus far, the eight GOP candidates have struggled to rally beyond their base supporters. Tillis has the support of major GOP figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) — who is struggling to fend of challengers of his own. Brannon, in addition to shoring up tea party support from Paul, has earned backing from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and FreedomWorks. Rev. Mark Harris, an evangelical preacher, hasn’t been able to move outside his base of religious voters but has drawn them away from other candidates as well. Harris has the weighty endorsement of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R).
A Public Policy Polling survey earlier this month actually found Tillis tied with Brannon. A more recent poll by SurveyUSA found Tillis leading the field with 28 percent, below the 40 percent he needs to clinch the nomination and avoid a runoff, a real possibility at this point.
“You have to get over 40 percent to avoid a runoff,” North Carolina-based Republican strategist Russell Peck told TPM. “Getting over 40 percent in a very low turnout race where you’re not wanting to spend all your money is not always easy.”
Tillis has suffered from a few stumbles on the campaign trail including calling the minimum wage a “dangerous idea” and getting caught exaggerating his college credentials. Tillis also committed the cardinal GOP primary sin of suggesting there are some parts of Obamacare that are a good idea.
And Brannon has helped sponsor a pro-nullification rally, compared food stamps to slavery, and argued that Planned Parenthood has a secret plan to kill newborn babies. Keep in mind he’s one of the more high profile candidates in the race. In other words, no candidate so far is without weaknesses.
The lack of one single preferred GOP candidate — or even one preferred establishment Republican candidate and one anti-establishment tea party favorite — has made the race a bit more of a free-for-all for Republicans hoped for. A recent forecast by Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver actually gives Republicans a 50-50 chance of winning the seat.
The uncertainty seems to have reached some of the prominent outside tea party group as well. The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF), the Madison Project, and the Club for Growth all haven’t endorsed a candidate in the North Carolina senate race while they have endorsed in other, similar multi-candidate GOP primaries elsewhere in the country. At least one candidate, Brannon, has talked with SCF and filled out its survey that the influential outside group uses to decide which candidate to back as well.
Meanwhile, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS might be trying to put its thumb on the scale for Tillis, announcing on Tuesday that they plan to spend $1.1 million on the House speaker, according to the Washington Examiner. Rove has already thrown fundraisers for Tillis which has turned off some tea party-inclined voters as well, according to Bloomberg News.
So now, the possibility of a runoff is looking more and more like something Tillis will have to go through to win the nomination and face Hagan, which is something Tillis would rather avoid.
“A runoff benefits no one but Kay Hagan. It takes time off the clock, it gives her seven more weeks before everyone can turn their attention to the real goal, which is to unseat her, and it costs money,” Tillis told Bloomberg News.
Still, Republicans are confident that in the end all the chaos is just growing pains.
“I think she is in huge trouble no matter who she faces,” strategist Peck said of Hagan.