Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

Republicans Predict Top North Carolina Senate Candidate Avoids Runoff

Tillis is running for Senate. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For several months, the Republican Senate primary in North Carolina has been a race for second place: state Speaker Thom Tillis, with his superior financial resources, is a shoo-in for first, while Dr. Greg Brannon and Pastor Mark Harris vied for second place to challenge Tillis in a runoff.

But, one week before the primary, many local operatives now expect Tillis will reach the 40 percent threshold on Tuesday to avoid a runoff later this summer with the second-place finisher.

The winner of the primary will face Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., in one of the cycle’s marquee competitive contests. For Tillis, the stakes to avoid a runoff are high because it would force him to spend another two months running against a Republican opponent — instead of Hagan.

What’s more, the state’s General Assembly comes back into session on May 14, eight days after the primary. Tillis would have to balance his duties as speaker while still campaigning for the nomination.

But, many local Republicans now see that scenario as increasingly unlikely, arguing that Tillis will most likely win the primary outright.

“About two weeks ago, I would’ve said we would definitely see a primary runoff,” said Chad Adams, the director of Priorities NC, an advocacy group focused on promoting limited government, who is not aligned with any campaign. “But looking at the landscape now and how we’re shaping up, it looks like that gap is closing.”

Adams predicted that Tillis could get to 40 percent, and if he falls short, it will only be by a hair.

“To me, it just feels like, on the ground, that the momentum really shifted recently for Tillis,” one North Carolina Republican strategist not aligned with any campaign told CQ Roll Call.

“I think it’s pretty much a done deal,” echoed a second unaligned North Carolina GOP strategist, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly about the race.

Not everyone is so sure. Turnout in primary races often is low and unpredictable. Tillis boasts a strong get-out-the-vote operation, but both Brannon and Harris have devoted followings within the state.

“We feel good about where we are, but we’re not overconfident,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said. “Obviously we’re hoping we get to 40 [percent] … but we’re prepared for any outcome.”

Democrats prefer Tillis face a runoff, but even some Tar Heel Democratic operatives have also come to the conclusion that Tillis will probably wrap it up next week.

Tillis “gets through,” predicted Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson.

Democratic and, privately, Republican operatives give the Tillis campaign little credit for that presumptive accomplishment. Instead, they chalk up his improved standing to the inadequate campaigns of his opponents.

They also cite the influence of outside groups like American Crossroads, which came in at the beginning of April with a four-week, $1.6 million ad buy to boost Tillis. The ad buy ended on Monday, and then the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a substantial buy supporting Tillis that started on Tuesday.

Without American Crossroads, Jackson said, Tillis would be heading for a runoff.

The volume of Tillis’ financial resources, combined with money spent by outside groups on his behalf, has dwarfed his opponents, giving Tillis an advantage. Outside groups could have helped even the playing field for Brannon and Harris, but none have spent significant money to do so yet.

Some North Carolina Republicans had expected Harris to surge in the final weeks of the race, potentially holding Tillis to less than 40 percent. But that’s not the case, according to recent polling.

Public polling has shown Harris in third place for most of the campaign: Three polls released in the past week have Harris behind Brannon and Tillis.

A large advertisement buy from Senate Majority PAC has served as a wildcard in the race. One of the Democratic super PAC’s spot attacks Tillis for a scandal in which two of his former staffers were found to have improper relationships with lobbyists. One of those staffers was his chief of staff, who shared an apartment with Tillis. The staffers were forced to resign, but Tillis gave them severance packages.

The ad is particularly potent, and could cause problems for Tillis, especially in a general election. But Republican primary voters’ intense dislike of Hagan and the Democrats behind the ad could yield the opposite effect: Rallying voters behind Tillis.

“Harry Reid attacking him on Obamacare is not gonna hurt in a Republican primary,” North Carolina GOP strategist Carter Wrenn said, referring to another Senate Majority PAC ad that attacks Tillis on Obamacare.

Republicans could even “revolt against Democrats meddling in their primary” and decide to vote for Tillis as Hagan’s most formidable foe, said Democratic pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling.

Harris’ campaign is not conceding yet.

“We’re closing it just as strong as any campaign in the race if not stronger,” said Harris campaign spokesman Mike Rusher, pointing to $400,000 cash on hand to spend on media in the final days of the race, and noting Harris’ rise in public polling.

The Brannon campaign did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

The race is rated Tilts Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.

Correction 3:45 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated how much American Crossroads has spent to assist Thom Tillis.

  • Yonatan YONATAN

    I can’t believe that after ALL of this time, and after break after break, we still have no extension bill passed in the senate. This proves that the republican party never had ANY intention to pass this bill REGARDLESS of what concession was offered to them. These republican senators have shown their true distain for the poor people in this country. There can be no other explanation for their lack of total compassion and empathy with those in our country who are hurting financially in one of the worse recessions in many years. As a “FORMER” republican, I’m shocked and disappointed by the party that once was my own. I will NEVER EVER vote for a republican again in the future, and will encourage family and friends to do the same. The republican party has lost it’s way and are no longer relevant to it’s constituents. Just what kind of game are they playing here? When we have more than two million families out of work, without any benefits, struggling from day to day to keep a roof over their children’s heads, and food on the table, they’re playing party politics? These senators are heartless, soulless, bureaucrats, who do not care about you and me, but ONLY themselves and their party. We need to make a huge change in the next elections, and make sure that the republicans are never in charge again to do this sort of thing to helpless people.

  • betsym

    You are spot on. I used to be a Republican also and find it unconscionable how they treat the middle class and the poor. I too will never vote for a Republican again unless they revert back to what the party was when Eisenhower was President. But with the tea party this will never happen because between the t-party and the far right wing the GOP is lost.

  • Hetero Lingo

    Not only does competition most efficiently allocate resources, it serves to guide our efforts without the meddling of central authorities.

  • cnourse57

    What in the heck are you talking about? The Democrats control the Senate, not the Republicans. And that means Harry Reid gets to make all the decisions about which bills will or will not go to committees for hearings, markup, etc. If he decides to sit on a bill that the House has passed, then it never sees the light of day in the Senate. The Republicans are not to blame for Harry Reid’s decisions.

  • terry g

    The GOP is Lost? Who controls the House and maybe the Senate after this election?

  • reconquista

    Tillis will win with 49% and Hagan will have to try to find an honest job next January

  • Raphael Semmes

    If the out of state establishment meddlers like Rove and the pro-amnesty Chamber buy the nomination for Tillis, then conservatives will sit on their hands. With his long record of hostility to conservatives, Tillis is simply not a candidate who could unite the party. He is despised by conservatives for many issues totally unrelated to his Senate campaign, such as this one:

  • Raphael Semmes

    The meddling by Rove and the NRSC is one reason many conservatives would not even vote in a Senate campaign where Tillis was the nominee. North Carolinians should decide our nominee, not arrogant out of state party bosses. If we can get Tillis into a runoff, we will beat him in the runoff and then win in November. If Tillis is the nominee, he is toast. Tillis was just downgraded to a D- rating on gun rights issues by the National Association for Gun Rights. Tillis is pro amnesty, and many conservative voters will simply not vote for ANY pro amnesty politician, no matter.what party line they are running on.

  • Raphael Semmes

    Tillis is very weak among party activists, many of whom would not vote for him in any election. Saturating TV to get to low information voters seems to be Rove’s strategy. Tillis’ support of amnesty for illegal aliens makes him absolutely unacceptable as a Senator, but pro-amensty groups like Rove’s and the Chamber may spend enough to buy the nomination for him with low information voters. If we get to a runoff, which is dominated by more educated voters, Tillis is toast.

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  • Rod Dainjer

    Liberty empowers us to choose which goals to work toward, which efforts to undertake, and how to adjust our ways when confronted with dynamic circumstances we could not foresee.

  • Wise words …

    It’s important to recognize the dangers to liberty arising from collectivists who seize upon temporary crises and fleeting problems as excuses to further centralize government power.

  • Cpt. States

    Those who preach from collectivism’s altar tend to claim that private property is the source of human discontent because they believe it empowers certain people against others.


    The Republican party has done a huge disservice to itself, for taking the position against the unemployment extension bill in the senate. With 2.6 Million angry potential voters having been affected by their refusal to pass the bill; the coming election will prove to be the Republican’s downfall. These families were left hung out to dry since late last December, and they will not forget the anguish that they have suffered because of it. Many of these families have become ruined financially, they have witnessed their credit being destroyed, they have faced evictions, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcy, and homelessness. How can they not forget which party was at fault for this? The Republicans have been using these families for political leverage, and bargaining chips, to further their party’s political agenda. They have shown their party’s true distain for the Average American family, and the suffering that these families have been going through being jobless without benefits to support their children. Senators like John Boehner are what makes the Republican party look bad in the people’s eyes. As a “FORMER” Republican of many years, I can honestly say that I will NEVER vote for another Republican again, and actively persuade my friends and family not to likewise. The Republican party will find itself VOTED OUT in the next election

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