State House Speaker Thom Tillis, backed by party mainstream
leaders and business groups, appears to have an edge over Tea Party
favorite Greg Brannon and evangelical minister Mark Harris in North
Carolina, but he needs 40 percent of the vote to avoid a costly July
runoff with the second-place finisher.
The showdown to determine who will take on vulnerable Democratic
Senator Kay Hagan kicks off a month-long string of Republican
primaries that could prove instrumental to the party's efforts to
retake control of the Senate in November.
Republican leaders are anxious to limit the kind of divisive primary
fights that produced weak general election candidates and helped
cost them winnable Senate seats in 2010 and 2012.
Establishment-backed Republican Senate candidates also lead opinion
polls in two May 20 contests: in Kentucky, where Republican Senate
leader Mitch McConnell is favored over a Tea Party challenger, and
in Georgia, where a crowded primary makes a runoff likely but the
most conservative Tea Party candidates are not among the poll
Republican campaign officials also hope for a primary win on May 20
in Oregon by first-time candidate Monica Wehby, a pediatric
neurosurgeon with the sort of moderate image that might be
successful in a Democratic-leaning state.
This year, Republicans in Congress have learned to be more proactive
against challenges, analysts said, shifting to the right and
courting conservatives while raising more early money and going on
the attack when necessary.
"What we have seen this cycle is that every Republican incumbent
took a potential primary challenge seriously and was ready for it
early on," said Republican strategist Brian Walsh, a consultant and
former aide at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Some party voters also have suffered "buyer's remorse," he said,
after watching candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard
Mourdock in Indiana ride the momentum of the Tea Party movement to
primary wins, then flame out in the general election with
campaign-trail missteps such as Akin's 2012 comment about
This year, Republicans need to gain six seats for a Senate majority
and cannot afford to fumble away chances at a time when President
Barack Obama's low approval ratings and public dissatisfaction with
his healthcare law have Democrats on the defensive.
'COMMON SENSE CONSERVATIVE'
In North Carolina, Tillis has emphasized his credentials as a social
and fiscal conservative to counter his rivals in a contest that also
has attracted attention from a trio of potential 2016 presidential
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky campaigned for Brannon on
Monday, while Harris is backed by former Arkansas Governor Mike
Huckabee and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has endorsed Tillis.
Brannon and Harris have questioned Tillis's conservatism, but polls
show Tillis with a solid lead and support near the 40-percent level
needed to avoid a runoff.
[to top of second column]
He has been helped by two powerful advocacy groups linked with the
party's establishment - the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce
and American Crossroads, founded by strategist Karl Rove - which
together spent about $2.6 million on ads for him.
A Crossroads ad aired in Charlotte and Raleigh describes Tillis as a
"common sense conservative" and highlights his support for tax cuts
and his opposition to the healthcare law, while linking Hagan to
Obama and describing her as addicted to "out of control" spending
Steven Law, president of Crossroads, said the group was looking for
Republicans with the strongest shot at winning in November. It also
has advertised in Alaska for former state attorney general Ray
Sullivan, in a contested Senate primary for the right to face
endangered Democratic Senator Mark Begich.
"We definitely took away from 2010 and 2012 a concern about
opportunities lost because of poor candidate performance," Law said.
"Our view is that Tillis is far and away the most competitive
candidate to challenge Hagan."
In other North Carolina contests, former "American Idol" TV show
runner-up Clay Aiken is battling former state Commerce Secretary
Keith Crisco for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican
Representative Renee Ellmers, and Republican Representative Walter
Jones faces political consultant Tyler Griffin in a primary.
Indiana and Ohio also hold nominating contests on Tuesday as the
U.S. election season gets under way in earnest. Ohio Democrats are
expected to choose Ed FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and now
Cuyahoga County executive, over minor opposition to take on
Republican Governor John Kasich in what will be one of the top
governor's races in November.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.