It’s old news now, but on Friday Thom Tillis announced that he’s planning to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kay Hagan. Tillis is the first “name” candidate in the race. Upon his entry, Tillis was “welcomed” into the race by the only other announced candidate, Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon, marking the opening salvo of the 2014 Republican primary race.
Tillis will probably not be the only Charlotte-area candidate in the race. Supporters of Rev. Mark Harris are starting a “draft” movement for the socially conservative pastor. Harris is head of a large megachurch in Charlotte and his candidacy seems imminent.
Tillis has a reputation as a moderate and is known as the establishment candidate in the race. This could be a millstone around his neck. The party’s base is not thrilled with “establishment” types and it will take political deftness to convince some of the more strident elements of the party that Tillis is one of them. He will have access to money, of course, but money cannot buy love with an angry and highly motivated Tea Party.
Brannon identifies with the Tea Party and says that he’ll be a senator in the mold of Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Lee. Indeed, many of his supporters are drawing comparisons with the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, with Tillis in the place of Trey Grayson and Brannon in the place of Rand Paul. Paul was ultimately victorious over Grayson, the establishment favorite, by a landslide. That Brannon also serves in the medical profession is seen as further support of this by his ardent followers.
If Harris runs, and he probably will, then expect him to be the candidate of social conservatives. Harris is chummy with GOP politicos like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee and might even receive an endorsement from them. Should Harris be able to raise money, it’s possible that he could be a formidable candidate for the nomination. However, social conservatism had its heyday in the Republican Party about a decade ago and the influence of the Religious Right is waning nationwide. Harris would probably have a tough time in the general election if he makes it there. The moderate swing voters in North Carolina are more concerned with economic matters than spiritual ones, and his strong socially conservative views could turn off voters. If Harris is nominated, expect to hear a lot about God, abortion, homosexuality, and probably rape. This will only serve to distract from the issues that GOP Senate candidates should be talking about, like the economy and Obamacare.
Renee Ellmers and Phil Berger are thought to be leaning against a bid. Foxx is playing coy. The candidate with the power to most influence the race, however, is former Ambassador Jim Cain. Here, we must put a question mark. Tillis’s earlier than anticipated entry into the race will probably force Cain, and the other candidates, to soon make up their minds.
The presence of two or more candidates with a legitimate claim to the Tea Party mantle is probably a boon for Tillis. The converse is also true. Should the Tea Party and the far right unite behind one candidate, Tillis’s Senate campaign could be in trouble.
That said, I am revising my past insistence than the North Carolina Senate race is a toss-up. This was predicated on my belief that the national environment, likely to be favorable to Republicans, will play a central role in the campaign. But candidate quality also matters, and right now the risk is too high that the wrong person will be nominated. Therefore, I am now giving the NC Senate race a ranking of “Leans Democrat”. To make it quite clear, the wrong candidate could still prevail in extremely favorable circumstances for the GOP … but that’s not a risk Republicans should take. They should soberly examine each candidate and determine which one will have the best chance of defeating Kay Hagan next November.