A slew of May primary battles begins Tuesday as the Republican establishment looks to reassert its control over a divided GOP in a number of states.
Its first big test comes in North Carolina, where business-friendly GOP groups have gone all-in for House Speaker Thom Tillis as he seeks to avoid a primary election runoff and turn his focus to Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). The race is a top priority for the GOP as it seeks to win back the Senate.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads have combined to spend nearly $2.5 million on ads boosting Tillis in the race, deluging the airwaves to raise his name identification. Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney endorsed Tillis on Monday, joining former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R).
As the TV battle heated up, Tillis rose quickly on the polls and is now on the cusp of the 40 percent he needs to win the primary on the first try, according to recent public and private polling. If he falls below that mark he’ll have to contend with a mid-July primary runoff against either Tea Party candidate Greg Brannon (R), who is campaigning with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Monday, or Rev. Mark Harris (R), who has former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) support.
A win on Tuesday allows Tillis to conserve resources for the general election and train his fire on Hagan, who has had a narrow lead against Tillis in most recent public polls. But if he falls short he’ll have to slog it out for another few months, potentially hurting his chances in the general election and giving the Tea Party another shot.
“It’s extremely important. If Tillis avoids a runoff the headline is ‘GOP dodges a bullet’ and if he doesn’t, it’s ‘Hagan dodges a bullet,’ ” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
O’Connell said the race could help set the tone for the rest of the primary season, for better or worse.
“It’s important for Tillis to get the party beyond this hump psychologically as well. It could make a lot of other things go easier. The last thing the party wants is the ‘here they go again’ narrative,” he said.