N.C. Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, (R-NC) knocks on doors in an Huntersville, N.C., on May 5, 2014.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Thom Tillis wins North Carolina GOP Senate primary

Updated

Establishment Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief tonight.

The Associated Press declared Thom Tillis the victor in North Carolina’s GOP Senate primary, defeating tea party firebrand Greg Brannon and conservative pastor Mark Harris.

More importantly, by taking more than 40% of the vote, Tillis avoids a runoff, which would have meant another six weeks of GOP infighting before the party could move on to the general election against Sen. Kay Hagan, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in this year’s midterms.

Republican leaders watched in horror in 2010 and 2012 as fringe or inexperienced candidates like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Todd Akin in Missouri blew what they considered winnable Senate races after wresting the nomination from more mainstream candidates. And Brannon, perhaps more than any Republican this year, personified the type of candidate that GOP leaders feared might hand Democrats a victory.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 5/6/14, 10:23 PM ET

Tea party fails upset in NC race

Rachel Maddow reports that Republican establishment candidate Thom Tillis has won the North Carolina Republican primary by a sufficient margin to avoid a runoff. House Speaker John Boehner also won handily his primary in Ohio.

A first-time politician, Brannon was known for his work leading conservative advocacy group Founder’s Truth, whose website featured a sludge of dark conspiracy theories – among them, suggestions that the Aurora movie theater shooting was staged by shadowy government forces. Brannon is also a strong proponent of nullification, a legal theory that argues states can unilaterally ignore federal laws. Nullification has its roots in the Confederacy and Brannon co-sponsored a rally with a Southern secessionist group to deliver a speech on the topic. He also has what one might call “nuanced” views on whether 9/11 was an inside job.

“It was clear from the start that Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda, and tonight’s victory is the first step toward making that happen.”
Steven Law, President of American Crossroads

Lacking strong funding, Brannon appeared to be fading away as Tillis marched towards an easy victory. But with the help of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who campaigned with Brannon this week, and fellow libertarian Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), the final poll from North Carolina-based PPP showed him threatening to just barely force a runoff.

Brannon also got a boost from Democrats, who are hoping to elevate GOP candidates they consider Akins-in-waiting (Akin himself benefited from Democratic ads highlighting his conservative bona fides for primary voters). In this case, Hagan sent mailers and ran misleading ads suggesting Tillis was weak on repealing Obamacare to try and undermine his case with Republican voters. 

This time, however, the GOP establishment didn’t take any chances. Sensing a chance to push Tillis over the top, a number of big Republican names threw their support behind him, including Governor Pat McCrory, Jeb Bush, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which had pledged to take a more active role this year in GOP primaries, spent over $1 million on ads supporting Tillis.  

“It was clear from the start that Thom Tillis is the only proven conservative who can defeat Kay Hagan and take on President Obama’s liberal agenda, and tonight’s victory is the first step toward making that happen,” American Crossroads president Steven Law said in a statement on Tuesday. 

While the North Carolina contest featured a showdown between establishment and tea party leaders, Tillis is hardly a moderate when it comes to policy. As speaker of the house, he delivered a rapid-fire burst of conservative legislation after Republicans took control of the legislature, pushing through new laws on everything from taxes to abortion to guns. 

Hagan’s campaign is trying to draw attention this week to a 2011 appearance in which he told Republicans to employ a “divide and conquer” strategy to pit deserving recipients of federal aid against “these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government” (Tillis later said he regretted his choice of words). 

Staving off another potential loss for the Paul family’s libertarian movement, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) won a competitive primary contest against challenger Taylor Griffin. Jones, an ally of former Rep. Ron Paul, has frequently broken with party leadership on key votes and once predicted that former Vice President Dick Cheney would end up “rotting in hell” for his role in the Iraq War. Griffin, 38, ran promising a more traditional Republican platform, including a more interventionist approach to foreign policy. 

Another North Carolina incumbent facing a primary challenge, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), won her race over challenger Frank Roche. Ellmers is one of only a small group of House Republicans who have publicly endorsed passing immigration reform that provides a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Roche ran against her pledging to send a message to Republicans backing “amnesty.” With 90% of votes counted, Ellmers led 59% to 40% for Roche. 

Thom Tillis wins North Carolina GOP Senate primary

Updated