The GOP primary for U.S. Senate in North Carolina is starting to look really interesting. Yesterday’s campaign announcement by former Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander makes six people vying for the nomination. If all six actually file next month, the path to a clear victory with 40% or more of the vote in May is tough.

House Speaker Thom Tillis is considered the frontrunner now because of his fundraising advantage and institutional support. However, the primary turnout will be low, around 450,000 or so voters, and the electorate will be more ideological and better informed that those in the general election. His ads may give Tillis broader name recognition but his more ideological opponents will likely have more motivated and committed supporters.

Ted Alexander also offers Tillis a challenge. While Alexander doesn’t have statewide name recognition or access to big money, he’s well known and respected among opinion leaders in the GOP-dominated foothills region. He grew up in the area, served eight years as mayor of a mid-sized town and has been a leader in economic development and historic preservation efforts throughout western North Carolina. He’s primarily a regional candidate but he’s a serious guy and his profile as a community-oriented, business conservative will steal votes from Tillis.

And Tillis can’t afford to lose many votes. He needs to win the primary outright. A runoff leaves him with a bunch of lousy options. The short session of the legislature with all of its contentious business will begin right after the primary. As Speaker, Tillis will be high profile while simultaneously running in a second primary in a party with little respect for modern institutions, including the state legislature. If he resigns to focus on the runoff, he opens himself up to charges of shirking his responsibility.

The other candidates have a different task. They need to be everybody’s second choice.   Somebody will probably emerge as the main Tillis challenger. I’m betting on Mark Harris, but whoever it is should be looking for support in the runoff. They need to make nice with the other candidates while demonizing Tillis as a pawn of the establishment.

A runoff will probably have less than 200,000 voters and occur in the middle of the summer when attention is low. Television ads will have less impact on the hyper-informed electorate while endorsements from losing candidates and field operations will play large. A coalition of social conservatives and Tea Partiers would be powerful. If the non-Tillis candidates can keep from shooting at each other and six or more file, the second place finisher is in a strong position to become the GOP nominee.

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 >

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