Raleigh, N.C. — Republican voters have chosen state House Speaker Thom Tillis as their party's candidate to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, according to incomplete and unofficial returns.
Tillis captured more than the 40 percent of the vote he needed to avoid a runoff against his chief GOP rivals: Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary.
"We need one big group hug," Tillis said as he addressed excited well-wishers Tuesday night. He then launched into a speech that lambasted Hagan for her support of President Barack Obama and his signature health care law.
Hagan easily won her party primary Tuesday night. Throughout the campaign, Tillis has said that he has been cleaning up Hagan's mess in Raleigh, a reference to her time as a state budget writer before Tillis' GOP took power in the state capital. He called the Affordable Care Act, what some call "Obamacare," a mess of Hagan's making.
"Kay Hagan made this mess," Tillis told cheering supporters. "I want you all to grab a broom and help sweep Kay Hagan out of office."
Eight Republicans filed to run for their party's nod, but Tillis has long been the choice of mainstream GOP figures such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. In recent weeks, he has landed endorsements from 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.
Those endorsements brought campaign cash and help from outside spenders like American Crossroads but also suspicion from the tea party wing of the party, which has seen Tillis as too ready to compromise with Democrats and too allied with corporate interests.
But that criticism didn't faze such Tillis supporters as Terry Lursen, 56, of Huntersville, who said he volunteered for the Mecklenburg County Republican because of "his leadership, his ability to know the right thing to do and have people follow him." Lursen cited Tillis' endorsements from the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life.
"The only people saying he's not conservative enough are the people who want to see him defeated. It's a deception," Lursen said.
Tillis was joined in Charlotte by fellow lawmakers, including Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, and Rep. Jacqueline Schaeffer, R-Mecklenburg.
Rivals wait for returns
As results rolled in, the Harris and Brannon camps kept a close eye on the returns.
Brannon started his day by delivering a baby at 6 a.m., voting at 9 a.m. and then seeing patients the rest of the day.
Tuesday night, he congratulated Tillis.
"I have one thing to say. It is a sunrise," Brannon said. "There is no doubt in my mind liberty will win the day. I congratulate Mr. Tillis. He worked hard, he worked very hard. And the key is Ms. Hagan must come home."
The obstetrician has been embraced by the tea party movement. During debates, he would frequently cite passages of the Constitution in his answers and campaigned on a platform of limiting federal power. He had the backing of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and FreedomWorks, a nonprofit group that backs tea party conservatives over those viewed as "establishment" Republicans.
Brannon's campaign weathered several impediments, not the least of which was a civil judgment by a Wake County jury that found him liable for misleading investors. The court has ordered Brannon to pay more than $500,000 in legal fees and remuneration to two men.
While Harris sometimes mentioned this during campaign speeches, Tillis never raised the issue of Brannon's lawsuit. He didn't have to. It was only in recent days that poll numbers showed Brannon's share of the vote creeping out of the mid-teens, and he never had enough backing to challenge Tillis in terms of television advertising.
Harris also lagged in both fundraising and outside support.
The minister had hoped to tap both tea party support as well as a strain of Christian conservatism that helped carry such GOP stalwarts as Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms to victory in the state. Early in the evening, Harris told supporters he was placing his faith in a conservative Christian electorate that did not always come out to vote in primaries.
"I've never worked for a candidate, I've never given to a candidate, and I've never had a sign in my yard before," said Evelyn White, 94, of Winston-Salem. "But he's so special, I did it all this time."
White said she made 750 calls for Harris during the primary and hoped to make many more for the general election season.
During the campaign, Harris said that Tillis had "baggage" that Democrats would exploit in the fall. But in his concession speech, Harris said he would back Tillis in the general election. The Republican "family," he said, needed to back the GOP nominee.
"We must bring Kay Hagan home," Harris said, prompting applause from his supporters.
Experience wins out
With the exception of Ted Alexander, the former mayor of Shelby, Tillis was the only one of the eight GOP candidates with experience in government. He has been the state House speaker since 2011 after helping to engineer electoral victories in 2010 that dislodged Democrats from power in the state legislature.
Sarah Bullins, 18, from Stokes County, voted for the first time Tuesday – for Tillis. She's been volunteering on his campaign for the past year.
She said she backed Tillis in the primary because he's "a great man "and "the best representative of North Carolina".
As soon as Tillis was able to claim victory, friends and foes began to weigh in.
"Speaker Tillis’ Washington special interests succeeded in dragging him across the finish line, but they’ll find that defending his record in the fall is much more difficult than brushing off underfunded challengers," said Ben Ray, a spokesman for Forward North Carolina, the arm of the Democratic Party working with the Hagan campaign.
Republicans celebrated his victory.
"Tonight, voters recognized that Thom Tillis is a strong leader with a history of getting things done for North Carolina," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran.
A former business consultant, Tillis has long been considered the choice of Washington's Republican leadership. In the General Assembly, Tillis has been a pragmatist, especially during the 2011-12 session when he did not have the votes to override vetoes from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Tillis has pointed to his willingness to work with Democrats on some issues as a strength, but some conservatives say that this makes him too willing to compromise on important principles.
Both Democrats and Republicans have launched attacks against him by citing a sex scandal that forced the resignation of two of his staffers, as well as a tussle over the appointment of high-dollar campaign donors to the UNC Board of Governors.
But throughout the primary campaign, Tillis has treated Hagan as his only opposition, focusing on what he says are her shortcomings during debates, personal appearances and in campaign ads.
"When the president bullied his way into a takeover of our health care system, Kay Hagan cast the deciding vote," Tillis said during his victory speech Tuesday night.