By winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate outright on Tuesday, North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis greatly raised his chances of defeating Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November.
With nearly all precincts in, Tillis rolled up 46 percent of the vote over seven opponents. Running second was obstetrician Greg Brannon, a favorite of many tea party groups, with 27 percent. Baptist pastor Mark Harris was third with 17 percent, while all other candidates were in single digits.
In easily surpassing the 40 percent of the vote needed for the nomination, the conservative Tillis put to rest the biggest fear of Republicans from Raleigh to Washington: that he would fall below "the magic 40" and thus have to go through two more months of hard campaigning against another Republican in a runoff to determine the Senate nominee.
Noting that both Hagan and the political action committee of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada spent heavily on television broadsides against Tillis in hopes of forcing a runoff, veteran North Carolina GOP consultant Marc Rotterman told Newsmax:
"Harry Reid fired all his ammunition against Speaker Tillis and missed. What has he got now?"
Tillis can now focus his fire on Hagan, who narrowly unseated Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008 and has since voted for and consistently backed Obamacare.
A New York Times/Kaiser poll conducted last month showed that among likely voters statewide, Hagan edged Tillis by a margin of 42 percent to 40 percent. A PPP survey showed Hagan ahead 43 percent to 41 percent.
In a state that two years ago voted for Mitt Romney, elected a Republican for governor, and gave the GOP majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, Hagan will unquestionably face a stiff challenge in November.
"It's hard to believe that a state that voted the way North Carolina did in '12 will re-elect a senator who votes with Obama 96 percent of the time in '14," Rotterman said.
Fear of a prolonged GOP race for the nomination led Republicans in and outside the Tar Heel State to rally behind Tillis early. Gov. Pat McCrory and Rep. Renee Ellmers endorsed the speaker, as did the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Right to Life Committee, and the National Rifle Association.
The American Crossroads super-PAC, led by Karl Rove, also did extensive TV advertising on behalf of Tillis. Also weighing in for him were Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
In contrast, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky campaigned hard for Brannon right up to the primary, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stumped for his friend Harris.
As speaker for the past two years, Tillis has led the fight for McCrory's conservative agenda, which includes a balanced budget and voter ID law. While not everyone on the right backed him, their differences with the speaker were more stylistic than ideological.
Now, as his former foes rally behind him, Tillis has taken the first major step in what is sure to be one of the pivotal races in the Republican effort to win a majority in the Senate this fall.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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