Thom Tillis emerged as a clear victor Tuesday in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, overpowering a tea party challenge with help from Washington power-brokers who saw him as the best candidate to challenge Democrat Kay Hagan in November.
The House speaker, running on his efforts to turn the state more conservative, easily exceeded the 40 percent mark necessary to avoid a July 15 runoff election, even with strong pushes at the end from his top rivals, Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris.
Tillis stood at 45 percent with 87 percent of precincts reporting, according to preliminary election results. Brannon stood at 27 percent and Harris at 18 percent. The Associated Press called the race just after 9:20 p.m., and soon the 100-plus Tillis supporters at the Omni Hotel in Charlotte erupted in cheers.
“It’s not the end of the primary; it’s really the beginning of the primary mission – it’s been our mission all along – to defeat Kay Hagan and make Harry Reid irrelevant,” Tillis told supporters shortly after 10 p.m. “Kay Hagan and Harry Reid are nothing but an echo chamber for President Obama’s worst ideas.”
The primary pitted three factions of the state GOP against each other in a race viewed as a proxy for the divisions at the national level and possibly the 2016 presidential contest.
The Tillis win, long-anticipated by Democrats, launches a race that could tilt the partisan balance in the closely split U.S. Senate.
North Carolina’s importance in the national picture is readily apparent in the nearly $20 million spent by outside political groups in recent months to influence the race, particularly voters’ opinions about the federal health care law.
Tens of millions more in outside spending is expected in the months ahead.
“I would expect you’re going to start seeing a battle almost immediately,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist who ran the party’s 2010 U.S. Senate candidate against Republican Richard Burr. “And I think you’ll start seeing pretty quickly a return to beating up on Kay Hagan.”
Hagan won her primary contest against two opponents who didn’t mount any campaign, and she immediately took aim at Tillis.
“This election is a simple choice between two very different records,” Hagan said in statement. “Thom Tillis has spent his time in Raleigh pushing a special interest agenda that has rigged the system against middle class families ... 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.”
Tillis focused his entire 10-minute victory speech on Hagan and the Democrats, pushing aside the themes from his primary campaign and not touting as prominently his conservative record. He mentioned Hagan’s name nearly two dozen times, linking her to Obama as he promised to “be an independent thinker” and a “problem solver.”
<span class="ng_leadin"><strong>Brannon will support</strong></span>
The top three candidates came into the race with natural supporters, though the fierce battle expected at the beginning never came to fruition.
Running as the leader of the conservative shift in the statehouse, Tillis shifted to the partisan right to win votes from all spectrums of the Republican Party.
He also received endorsements from big-name Republicans, including Gov. Pat McCrory, Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and a number of national organizations, such as the National Rifle Association. All spoke to how much the party wanted to avoid a runoff and the possibility of a weaker tea party candidate.
Brannon tapped into the tea party movement, staking out far-right positions as he emphasized a strict constitutional approach. He received the backing of like-minded Libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who flew to Charlotte for a rally the day before the election.
As Tillis gave his speech, Brannon took the stage in Raleigh to concede. He honored Tillis for a campaign well-fought, saying, “The key is Ms. Hagan must come home.”
He said his campaign had made a mark.
“I think Mr. Tillis heard it very clear,” he said. “We have to fight for individual liberties ... in a kind, compassionate way. If we do that, the next 30 to 40 years, again, are that sunrise.”
Brannon’s supporters were openly hostile toward Tillis’ candidacy, and questions remain about whether they will support him in November. But Josh Gurkin, a 29-year-old from Cary who volunteered on Brannon’s campaign, said he would follow Brannon’s lead and support the Republican nominee. “While I would prefer to vote for Dr. Brannon, I’d be happy to vote for Thom Tillis against Kay Hagan,” he said.
Harris, a former state Baptist convention leader, stressed a “values” message that catered to his supporters in the faith community but struggled to get traction from a larger audience. Harris gathered across town in Charlotte from Tillis and called to concede shortly after the race was called. Tillis called him “a gentleman.”
Five other Republican candidates also appeared on the ballot but didn’t top 5 percent.
<span class="ng_leadin"><strong>Financial advantage</strong></span>
Tillis managed to emerge from the heap with his financial advantage. Unlike the other candidates, Tillis was able to reach a broad swath of voters with a million-dollar television advertising campaign and a $2.4 million boost from his allies, including two super PACs.
His fundraising prowess and experience as a top lawmaker gave him an electability quality that helped sway Republican voters.
“We need some change in North Carolina,” said Ashley Van Wormer, a 44-year-old sales trainer from Cary, who voted for Tillis. We need “conservative values but not too far conservative. We need to elect somebody that can win.”
Looking ahead to November, political watchers on both sides expect the race will be a close fought battle, reflecting the state’s political split.
“If Tillis is the nominee, I think Kay Hagan is in real trouble,” said Republican strategist Andy Yates. “He had to run to the right in the primary, but I think he’s close enough to the middle to pull conservative Democrats, particularly in Eastern North Carolina, and a growing number of unaffiliated voters in our state.”
Mills, the Democratic blogger and consultant, said the unpopularity of the General Assembly may stain Tillis’ campaign, particularly cuts to education and social programs. “Right now I still think Hagan has a little bit of an edge,” he said.
But he said, “It would be hard to put money on either case because we are a swing state. We are evenly divided.”
--Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed.