US Republican establishment fights back

Analysis: in North Carolina a mainstream candidate is picked from party tug-of-war

Victory by a North Carolina state representative to run as the Republican nominee in the race for the Senate may appear insignificant in this year's broader election battle for control of the US Congress.

The win by Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, in the Republican senate primary is seen, however, as more ground won by the Republican establishment in the internal tug of war with the hardline Tea Party to pick candidates that can beat sitting Democratic senators.

In the fight between these rival Republican factions, Tillis easily won enough votes to pass the 40 per cent threshold to avoid a run-off in one of the most closely observed Senate primary races and in a swing state that could decide which party controls the Senate.

Republicans must make a net gain of six seats in the mid-term elections if they are to win back the Senate. Primary victories by mainstream Republican candidates, who have a better chance of winning over moderate and independent voters in general elections than Tea Party challengers, improve the party’s chances in about a dozen states that Republicans believe they can take from Democrats.


Tillis saw off challenges from obstetrician Greg Brannon, who was supported by Tea Party favourite and 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul, and Baptist minister Mark Harris, who is popular among religious conservatives. This lines up a battle in November with Democratic senator Kay Hagan, whom Republicans see as one of the party's weaker incumbents who they have a chance of beating.

Running against the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, and big government – two high-priority issues on Republican manifestos this year – Tillis won the primary by convincing North Carolinans that he is the best positioned and most experienced to beat Hagan.

North Carolina voted marginally blue in the 2008 presidential election with Barack Obama beating John McCain by just 14,000 votes. The state turned red again in 2012 when Mitt Romney beat Obama by just two percentage points in the second closest state race in that year's presidential election.

In mid-terms, North Carolina tends to be swayed by more conservative and white voters, making Hagan’s task of winning a second six-year term more difficult and putting Tillis at a distinct advantage.

“His chances are very, very good,” said Andrew Taylor, political science professor at North Carolina State University. “It’s going to be a very close race. The state is pretty purple. Hagan’s approval ratings are pretty low, in the low 40s, which is dangerous for her.”

Winning the Senate seat in North Carolina is seen as essential if Republicans are to win back the chamber from Democrats in a move that would make Obama’s second-term agenda even more difficult to achieve given that the GOP is favoured to retain control of the lower House of Representatives.

Tillis received substantial donations from establishment Republican donor groups such as American Crossroads and the US Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s hard to imagine that the Republicans could gain the majority in the Senate without winning North Carolina,” said Taylor.

The state is following a pattern emerging elsewhere. In Texas Republican senator John Cornyn easily defeated Steve Stockman, a Tea Party member of the US Congress, in a primary in March. That same month in Illinois, Obama's home state and one of the midwest's last Democratic strongholds, businessman Bruce Rauner won the support of the Republican mainstream and was picked to challenge Democratic governor Pat Quinn in his re-election bid.

Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia who runs the Crystal Ball election analysis website, is projecting Republicans to make a net gain of between four and eight senate seats. Probable wins will come in West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana and at least one out of Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas and North Carolina, he said, while Democratic losses in Iowa, Michigan and Colorado are also outside chances.

“The party as a whole has proven that their learning curve is not flat,” he said. ‘The party threw away at least five senate seats in the last election by nominating candidates outside the mainstream and people do learn. The Republican establishment is fighting back.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent