North Carolina state house speaker Thom Tillis vanquished two conservative opponents in the state’s GOP Senate primary, coming in above the 40 percent threshold he needed to avoid a runoff.
With 83 percent of precincts reporting, Tillis had 45 percent of the vote over Tea Party-backed Greg Brannon’s 27 percent and pastor Mark Harris’ 17 percent.
Tillis’ victory sets up a major bout between himself and embattled Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan.
The result is also a victory for the GOP Establishment. Former Gov. Jeb Bush backed Tillis and his record on immigration and Common Core is relatively liberal. Tillis was also aided by heavy spending, both from his campaign, and from third party groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.
According to The Tampa Bay Times, American Crossroads spent $1.5 million in support of Tillis.
Recent polls had shown Brannon and Harris gaining ground on Tillis, but it wasn’t enough for either to come close to touching Tillis.
Outspent by Tillis and outside groups who supported Tillis, Brannon was at a significant financial disadvantage throughout the campaign. He was also dogged by the details of a messy lawsuit brought against him by a former patient and her husband for a failed investment they made in a venture in which Brannon was a key player.
But every major Tea Party group in North Carolina, from the Asheville Tea Party in the far western tip of the state, to the Randolph County Tea Party near Raleigh, to Wilmington in the east, supported Brannon.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) made a high-profile visit to the state to campaign with Brannon, giving him the imprimatur from a likely presidential candidate in 2016.
Paul, who endorsed Brannon along with Senator Mike Lee, FreedomWorks, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, gave a rousing speech in support of Brannon to a crowd in Charlotte on Monday night.
The Tar Heel State “needs a dragon slayer, and that dragon slayer is Dr. Greg Brannon,” Paul told the crowd.
Harris, meanwhile, received the backing of a fellow pastor, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But his appeal from social conservatives may have drained potential voters from Brannon, handing Tillis the lead.
In contrast to Paul’s personal appearances in North Carolina, Huckabee’s support for Harris was limited to inclusion of his endorsement in campaign literature and ads.
Despite being the Establishment candidate in the race, Tillis is loathed by Democrats in his home state because he helped enact a series of conservative reforms in the state legislature, including tax reform, eliminating regulations, and a new voter identification law.
Hagan, the incumbent, has among the lowest approval ratings of any senator up for reelection and may be the most vulnerable Democrat on the ballot in 2014.
Prior to entering politics, Tillis was a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a business consulting firm.