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North Carolina GOP fights for party's soul

GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis
NC Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, speaks with reporters after visiting phone bank volunteers at the Tillis for US Senate Campaign Headquarters in Cornelius, N.C., May 4, 2014, two days before North Carolina's primary election.

There’s the establishment favorite with endorsements galore. The libertarian true believer with ties to the extreme right. The religious leader running on Christian values.

Is it the 2016 Republican presidential race? Close: It’s the Republican primary in North Carolina’s Senate race, which is shaping up as the purest contest of the year between the party’s competing business, tea party, and religious wings. The winner will face Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in what’s expected to be one of the toughest fought contests of the cycle.

North Carolina state house speaker Thom Tillis is the frontrunner heading into Tuesday’s election and has the backing of the state’s Republican governor, Pat McCrory, pro-business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, as well as a dominant lead in fundraising. On Monday, Mitt Romney announced his support for Tillis as well, giving him a last minute boost. He faces a challenge from underdogs Greg Brannon, a tea party activist running on a libertarian platform, and Mark Harris, a pastor known for emphasis on social issues.

In a preview of the GOP presidential contest, each of the three candidates has a national figure backing their run who represents their ideological analogue within the party.  Jeb Bush, who is also considered an establishment favorite, is backing Tillis. Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, two tea party icons who have butted heads with more mainstream Republicans, are backing Brannon. And Mike Huckabee, one of the party’s most prominent social conservatives and a former pastor himself, is backing Harris. 

The race looked fairly competitive a few weeks ago with a high number of undecided voters, but the latest polls show Tillis surging to a commanding lead. At this point, the big question is whether he can avoid a runoff against Brannon or Harris by getting over 40% of the vote in the first round. A survey by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling last week put his support at 46%, followed by 20% for Brannon, and 11% for Harris.

Part of the reason Tillis is romping to victory is his fundraising advantage and, perhaps even more importantly, his superior outside support from national GOP groups like American Crossroads. Another is that he’s an especially difficult candidate to outmaneuver from the right. Under his watch, Republicans took over the state government and have since enacted an ambitious agenda that included major voting restrictions, looser gun laws, strict new regulations on abortion clinics, and a refusal to accept Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. The abrupt rightward swing in a state that voted for President Obama and Hagan in 2008 fueled regular mass protests by progressives throughout the year, known as “Moral Mondays.”

“It’s hard to get to the right of someone who has instituted a conservative revolution in North Carolina,” Larry Shaheen, a Republican strategist in the state, told msnbc.

The bigger gap between the candidates, like in many races this year, has been on style over substance. 

Tillis presents himself as a results-oriented “practical conservative,” even if he and the other candidates mostly agree on the major issues, and has emphasized his electability against Hagan.  

Harris belongs to a social conservative wing of the party that’s been on the wane since its ascendant role in President George W. Bush’s winning coalition. He’s best known for his work advocating for a state ban on gay marriage, an issue politicians like Huckabee have urged the party not to abandon despite its flagging popularity.

Brannon presents himself as an uncompromising tea party warrior and answers almost every question with a reference to the Constitution. He is not a conventional candidate and, as has been the case with other tea party insurgents this year, carries some baggage.

Brannon has likened food stamps, Obamacare, and even the notion of “bipartisanship” and “compromise” to slavery. He made his name as an activist running a group called “Founder’s Truth,” whose website published posts – not by Brannon -- referencing a variety of fringe conspiracy theories, including allegations that the Aurora movie theater shooting was a “false flag” operation. Brannon himself flirted with 9/11 trutherism in a 2010 radio appearance, saying he favored further investigation into the issue. Last year, he co-sponsored a rally with a Southern secessionist group on nullifying federal laws.

Brannon is far enough out there that it’s possible he could go from being a proxy for Paul’s libertarian cause in 2014 to an actual campaign issue for Paul in 2016. Two of the Kentucky Senator’s biggest challenges in winning national support are his father’s fringe ties, which include decades of conspiracy-laden newsletters published under his name, and his own association with figures like neo-secessionist “Southern Avenger” Jack Hunter, a co-author and former Senate staffer. Brannon’s political biography echoes both stories.

In the meantime, however, he’s another struggling candidate. And despite Brannon’s fiery rhetoric and Harris’ strong emphasis on social issues, the GOP debates have been relatively tame, which has given the two less of a chance to distinguish themselves in front of conservative voters. 

The most aggressive efforts to influence the primary may have come from outside the state GOP. In what some observers viewed as an attempt to boost Brannon’s chances of winning the nomination, Hagan’s campaign ran misleading ads implying that Tillis thought Obamacare was a “great idea” (full quote: “a great idea that can’t be paid for.”) Another ad by Democratic group Senate Majority PAC attacked Tillis for giving a severance package to two staffers who resigned after admitting to engaging in inappropriate relationships with lobbyists.

If Hagan can’t get Brannon or Harris, Democrats are hoping the two candidates at least have helped keep Tillis from moving towards the center ahead of the general election. They need everything they can to motivate base voters like students, minorities, and single women to turn out for Hagan in order to overcome what is normally a steep drop off in midterm elections.

 “As speaker of the house, he owns every single bad piece of legislation that has passed the general assembly in the last three years and there is a ton of it,” Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in Raleigh, told msnbc. “This is the first statewide race on the ballot that gives voters recourse.”