I’ll continue my obsession with the GOP primary for U. S. Senate. With seven candidates in the race, the primary seems likely headed for a runoff. The Republican establishment sees Thom Tillis as the most electable challenger to Kay Hagan, and groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the U. S. Chamber are already lining up behind the speaker hoping to give him the fire power to win outright in May.
However, rumors are circulating that big money conservative groups are preparing to come into the state on behalf of Mark Harris, the preacher from Charlotte. Harris should have the remnants of the Christian Coalition behind him as well as the groups that supported the anti-gay marriage amendment. This grassroots component gives him ground troops that Tillis won’t have. If he can match Tillis on money, even if it’s from third party groups, he has the advantage.
Watching the movement conservatives and the establishment conservatives pound each other for six weeks really throws the outcome of the primary into doubt. The primary turnout will be extremely low with only the most passionate and most well informed Republicans showing up. If the Tillis-Harris war gets too ugly, disenchanted primary voters may turn to some of the second tier candidates.
A similar situation occurred in the Iowa caucuses in 2004. Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt entered January as heavy favorites and began pounding each other with negative attacks. The barrage sent voters away from both of the front runners, giving John Kerry and John Edwards first and second place, respectively. Both candidates had been in single digits only a few weeks earlier.
If Greg Brannon could get his act together, he would be in the best position to benefit. He’s got the blessing of Rand Paul and the Tea Party establishment (what an oxymoron), but so far hasn’t shown much political savvy. He’s failed to leverage the Paul endorsement and made the claim that he’s running a grassroots campaign even though nobody knows who he is.
But other candidates also have advantages. Bill Flynn and Heather Grant both speak the language of the Tea Party. Flynn is a talk radio host with a showman’s flair and Grant is a mother and nurse untainted by politics. Former Shelby mayor Ted Alexander offers business conservatives disgruntled with Tillis an alternative. He’s well respected across western North Carolina and has a solid background in economic development.
However, for Brannon, Flynn, Grant or Alexander to win, they’ll need to show some political moxie. Winning long-shot races requires campaigns to be very opportunistic, understanding how to recognize and exploit openings. A war between Tillis and Harris, though, is one of those opportunities and the chance for them to prove themselves.
Bring in the big guns and let the unintended consequences unfold. It is politics after all.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >