Thom Tillis really needs to win the primary outright in May if he’s going to challenge Kay Hagan as a moderate, pragmatic Republican. The runoff is set for mid July. The short session of the legislature starts in mid-May. And in both events Thom Tillis will be a main attraction.

As the last session of legislature showed, Tillis has a difficult caucus with a number of far right ideologues. He seemed to be blindsided when some of his members introduced legislation to allow for a state religion. He sat by while they passed a law banning Sharia Law. And he was a party to the legislation like voter suppression and denying teachers a pay raise that spawned the Moral Monday movement and fired up the Democratic base. Tillis can’t afford a repeat.

In a runoff, he’ll be taking heat from his right flank. The rap on him among conservatives is that Tillis is not a true conservative but an ambitious politician. The legislative session will test his ability to balance the sometimes nutty legislation that emerges from the Tea Partiers and social conservatives and the more pragmatic, moderate profile he’ll need in a general election.

Without a runoff opponent, Tillis can try to position himself as the voice of reason, tamping down the right while pushing through common sense legislation like teacher pay raises. That’s the Tillis that needs to run against Hagan if he hopes to win in November.

Right now, most polls look like the race is heading to a runoff. To avoid one, Tillis needs a few breaks and a smart campaign.

First, he needs a large turnout. Tillis will have an advantage on the airwaves and can reach a broader audience. A larger the turnout will mitigate the impact of the more narrowly focused grassroots operations that FreedomWorks is running for Greg Brannon and the old Christian Coalition is likely preparing for Mark Harris.

Second, Tillis needs a larger turnout among less ideological unaffiliated voters. In recent years, unaffiliated voters have been increasingly involved in primaries.  Tillis needs to tap into those less partisan voters who are not happy with Obama and, by extension, Hagan and offer himself an alternative. He could certainly benefit from a field operation.

To assure that he’s competitive in November, Tillis needs to win in May. Raising the profile of the primary with large ad buys can increase the turnout. Building an operation to reach unaffiliated voters and put them in the polls can increase his margin. But he’ll certainly need a lot of stars to align to avoid a July runoff.