In the spring of 2010, Elaine Marshall was a sitting Secretary of State locked in a primary with a former state senator, a prominent Obama fundraiser and three other little known candidates. Marshall had a solid advantage in name recognition but the race wasn’t getting much attention by the press or the voters. While she consistently held a lead, she couldn’t get above 30% support. When the votes were counted on primary night, she fell about 4% shy of the 40% threshold to avoid a runoff.
A similar dynamic is playing out in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate this year. The latest polls show House Speaker Thom Tillis stuck in the upper 20s with all of his opponents more than 10 points behind. Despite being on television for the past month or so, he can’t break free.
In the 2010 race, Marshall’s final lead grew but as other candidates began communicating, collectively, they picked up a larger share of the undecided votes. Expect a similar result in this year’s GOP primary. If voters aren’t supporting Tillis yet, they’re looking for an alternative. Greg Brannon and Mark Harris have solid reasons for GOP primary voters to support them if they have the resources to make the case.
This year certainly has its differences from 2010. Marshall did not have the support of the Washington establishment and Tillis does. Tillis will be far better financed than Marshall. However, Marshall had support because she was the anti-establishment candidate at a time when voters were mad at Washington. On the Republican side, they aren’t much happier this year and Brannon is trying grab that mantle now.
This race will more than likely go to a runoff. When that happens, all bets are off. Money will mean less, while enthusiasm means more. The race will likely get nasty, though, because with a single opponent, Tillis and his allies can try to make the other candidate unelectable.