WASHINGTON — In a boost for establishment Republicans and their hopes to gain control of the Senate, Thom Tillis won the North Carolina primary on Tuesday, avoiding a potentially contentious runoff by capturing more than 40 percent of the vote.
Tillis, the state House speaker, will now be able to focus his campaign on Senator Kay Hagan, the first-term Democrat who polls suggest will be highly vulnerable in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most-watched and costliest Senate races.
Buoyed by a few million dollars in support from mainstream Republican groups, Tillis held an advantage from the start over his two biggest challengers, Greg Brannon, a libertarian-leaning physician, and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor. With all but 20 of the state’s 2,725 precincts reporting, Tillis had received 46 percent of the vote, while Brannon had 27 percent and Harris 18 percent, according to the state elections website.
Conservative groups have already spent over $12 million attacking Hagan through television ads, an assault that has clearly hurt her standing. A New York Times poll last month showed that 44 percent of North Carolinians disapproved of her job performance — the same proportion that approved of her work.
Tuesday was the beginning of a busy primary season, with elections scheduled nearly every week over the next two months. Many of the Republican contests will feature a Tea Party-versus-establishment dynamic, which will offer insight into which faction is faring better with party loyalists.
Primaries were also held in Ohio, where Speaker John A. Boehner easily held off two Republican primary opponents. First-term Representative David Joyce had a slightly tougher time but was running well ahead of his Tea Party-backed rival, according to the Associated Press. Representative Susan Brooks of Indiana fended off a challenge from the right, rolling up 75 percent of the votes in a three-way race.
But it was North Carolina that attracted the most interest for both parties.
While Tillis is no moderate — he pushed through a conservative agenda in the Legislature — the North Carolina results represent a win for such Republican groups as the US Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, both of which aired TV ads in the state in an effort to ensure that Tillis did not have to face a potentially draining mid-July runoff. The groups, along with the Senate Republican leadership, were also concerned that a runoff would give an opening to Brannon, who they feared could not beat Hagan.
In the final days of the primary, the race became something of a proxy war between high-profile Republicans. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential candidate, both offered late endorsements of Tillis, while Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky appeared Monday at a rally in Charlotte for Brannon.
Brannon, however, was not able to win support from well-funded conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, that insurgent candidates often rely upon to defeat mainstream Republicans.
That lack of help was not only a letdown for Brannon, it was also a disappointment to Democrats, who were hoping that the Republican race would continue into July.
Democrats had begun hammering Tillis from the right, using mail pieces and radio ads to raise doubts about his conservative credentials.
Beyond the Senate primary, 10-term Republican Representative Walter Jones fended off one of the most serious primary threats of his career, a challenge from the first-time candidate Taylor Griffin.
Jones had infuriated some in his party for becoming an outspoken non-interventionist following the invasion of Iraq and saying last year that “Lyndon Johnson’s probably rotting in hell right now because of the Vietnam War, and he probably needs to move over for Dick Cheney.”
Another incumbent Republican in the state, Representative Renee Ellmers, won in a primary that was also watched closely. Ellmers was challenged on the right partly because of her support for an immigration overhaul. Her Democratic opponent could be the former “American Idol” contestant Clay Aiken. With almost all the ballots counted, he held a 370-vote lead over the businessman Keith Crisco.