It was a big night for the GOP establishment Tuesday, as Thom Tillis won the Republican Senate nomination in North Carolina, clearing the 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff.
The speaker of the state House now has six months to train his fire on vulnerable Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The result secures the Tar Heel State’s status as a top GOP pickup opportunity this fall.
Here are our five takeaways from Tuesday night —The establishment will be emboldened to play in more upcoming primaries.
Coming at the start of a string of primaries, the victory will only intensify Republicans’ confidence that they can win the six seats necessary to seize the majority.
Outside groups spent more than $10 million boosting Tillis and bloodying Hagan through the primary. American Crossroads alone spent $1.6 million backing him over the final month, the first big test of its promises to stop the party from nominating more Todd Akins. Crossroads even seeded money to other outside groups, like “Grow NC Strong,” to run radio ads promoting Tillis’ conservative stands on social issues.
If Tillis had been forced into a July 15 runoff, he almost certainly would have won the nomination. But there would have been hand-wringing in Washington about whether groups like Crossroads and the Chamber should have done more or less. Tea party forces might have felt inspired to pour money into the state, and there would have been days of stories about the GOP’s continuing primary problem.
Instead, there was not just jubilation but chatter about where the big outside groups can play next.
The Chamber is already spending in Mississippi to help Sen. Thad Cochran win his primary. He’s currently the only GOP Senate incumbent who looks like he might lose this cycle. Just today, it also booked fresh time in Idaho to help out Rep. Mike Simpson beat his primary challenger. And there’s talk the the business lobby could spend more to help Rep. Jack Kingston win the crowded Georgia Senate primary.
Tillis was by far the most viable candidate in a general, so Democrats invested big to try and bring him down and force him into a runoff. Senate Majority PAC spent $2.4 million blasting Tillis – including a spate of negative ads over ethics in the closing weeks – and $1.4 million boosting Hagan through the primary.
But GOP groups won out Tuesday night.
“We engaged early and worked closely with other center-right groups to help Tillis overcome a late dirty-tricks campaign orchestrated by Hagan and national Democrats,” American Crossroads President and CEO Steven Law said in a statement. “It was clear from the start that Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda.”The electability pitch works.
The North Carolina results are a strong indication that the GOP rank-and-file is undergoing a shift from prioritizing purity to prizing victory. Just like D.C. strategists, voters watched Akin and Richard Mourdock blow it in 2012 and didn’t want a repeat this year.
Tillis had the backing of blue-chip surrogates like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, and he rounded up endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life. The candidate and groups supporting him argued repeatedly that he was the one candidate who could beat Hagan.
“They fear Tillis the most,” says a poster in his Charlotte-area campaign office, with pictures of Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Hagan.
Tillis won with less than a majority, so some caution is warranted in interpreting the returns. We also don’t have exit polls to give us a breakdown of who voted for Tillis and why.
But reports from the ground suggest that the electability argument resonated.Rand Paul falls short
The likely 2016 candidate has spent the last two years trying to reassure party leaders that he is not his father by playing up his pragmatic streak.
Then he flew to Charlotte on Monday to campaign for Brannon, whom he called a “dragon slayer” taking on the “Leviathan.” The 11th-hour visit annoyed national Republicans who desperately wanted to avoid a runoff. It also raised concerns about a Paul presidential campaign from some natural allies, who wondered privately whether he had read any of the oppo dumps against Brannon in recent weeks.
The fact that Paul could then not keep Tillis under 40 percent shows the ceiling many Republicans believe still exists for libertarian candidates in the party. It’s a fresh data point for Paul critics to say he doesn’t have the juice he’d like to think he does.
On the other hand, Paul probably would have taken more heat if Brannon forced a runoff and then Tillis lost a close race to Hagan in November. The fact he went, with no long-term damage, means that the Kentucky senator can tell his own base supporters that he did what he could for Brannon.
Recognizing the danger to his image, Paul issued a statement Tuesday night congratulating Tillis and calling for GOP unity.
“Now that the primary is over, it is time for our side to unite to defeat the Democrat who cast the deciding vote for ObamaCare, Kay Hagan, in November,” he said. “I endorse Thom Tillis and look forward to working with him in the Senate.”
Mike Huckabee won’t make as many of the post-election stories as Paul, but he’s also worse off. The former Arkansas governor, who still flirts with another run in 2016, endorsed Harris and recorded a robocall on his behalf that hit 300,000 homes in the days before the primary. Harris finished third, receiving only 18 percent of the vote.The Republican chances of winning the seat just shot up.
Republicans now avoid two months of intra-party squabbling in a purple state. There’s little to suggest that conservatives who didn’t back him in the primary will stay on the sidelines.
More money will start flowing in, and conservative groups will stop hitting Tillis from the right.
There’s an upcoming legislative session in Raleigh, tentatively scheduled for mid-May through June. If he was still trying to secure the nomination, the state House speaker might have needed to pander to the right. Now he can navigate the session with an eye on independents and what will play best in November.
Hagan’s approval rating is far below the 50 percent threshold. Last time she was on the ballot, Obama was at the top of the ticket to help turn out African American voters. The electorate this time will be a lot different, and the risk that black voters stay home in droves is high.
Tillis adviser Brad Todd notes that even Obama in 2008 only carried one media market in the state: Raleigh. “Kay Hagan has a deep structural disadvantage going into the fall election,” he wrote in a post-primary memo.
Democrats argue that Tillis lurched right to win the nomination and that this will come back to haunt him. At the debates, he came out against a federal minimum wage, suggested he’d be open to eliminating the federal Department of Education and denied that climate science is established fact.Tea party candidate quality matters.
Tillis might have been looking at a runoff tonight had he been up against a more credible candidate. He only won with around 46 percent of the vote in an eight-way race, with 82 percent of precincts reporting. The Club for Growth, a conservative outside group that might have been able to offset the Crossroads and Chamber, never got involved in the primary. Club officials vetted Tillis’ chief challengers and weren’t impressed.
FreedomWorks, a big Brannon backer, spent only $156,000.
Two candidates, libertarian Greg Brannon and Pastor Mark Harris, divided the anti-Tillis vote.
Brannon had a history of making controversial statements, including saying that food stamps are a form of slavery. He was president of an organization called Founder’s Truth, whose web site had espoused conspiracy theories.
Neither Brannon nor Harris raised enough money to be competitive. While Harris was press-friendly, Brannon’s operation was totally nonresponsive to most reporters – which made him hard to cover.