Last week, I wrote that the path to victory without a runoff got tougher for Thom Tillis. The entry of former Shelby mayor Ted Alexander brought the number of candidates in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate to six. Several candidates bring either regional or ideological constituencies to the fight, making it difficult for any one candidate to reach the 40% threshold needed to win outright in May.
Republican Strategist John Davis, though, predicted that Tillis would be the nominee after the May primary, avoiding a runoff. Tillis certainly has a path and it’s paved with money.
To win, Tillis has two tasks. First, he needs to create an air of inevitability or invincibility. If he can convince GOP primary voters that no one can beat him, then he can demoralize his opponents’ supporters and maybe suppress their vote. At the same time, he builds enthusiasm among his own supporters and brings along all those undecided voters who are still out there. And right now, there are plenty of them.
Second, Tillis needs to convince Republican primary voters that he is the only candidate, or certainly the strongest candidate, to beat Kay Hagan. To do that, he’ll need to persuade conservatives who think that Republicans keep losing because they keep nominating moderates. These are the North Carolina GOP voters who stayed home for McCain and voted against Obama but not for Romney.
The key to both of these tasks is money. Tillis will need to go up on television early and strong. I called the strategy “up and over,” but “shock and awe” might be more appropriate. He’ll need to blitz the airwaves in February and March convincing people both of his invincibility and his conservative credentials. He’ll need to have his support at 50% or so by the time his opponents begin communicating so any attrition still leaves him above the 40% threshold.
He’ll need at least 4,000 to 5,000 unanswered points on television, or roughly $3 million in ads, before the real battle starts in late March or April. With support of allies like the U. S. Chamber and Karl Rove, he can get there, but he’ll need to hope that ideological groups like Senate Conservatives stay out. Tillis and company will need to spend another $3 million or more on TV in April. In the final weeks, the Tillis campaign ads will be all about the Speaker, or business conservative, taking on Obama Hagan. At the same time, shady, outside groups with unfamiliar names will try to destroy the credibility of any opponent who challenges Tillis.
In the end, Tillis and his allies will spend close to $10 million on the primary. It will be an unprecedented amount in a North Carolina primary, but for millionaires and billionaires trying to protect their economic interests, it’s just a drop in the bucket. And that’s how Thom Tillis clears the 40% threshold in May.