Raleigh, N.C. — The Republican primary for U.S. Senate has turned into a campaign straight from central casting.
Thom Tillis, the state House speaker with backing from national Republican leaders, is an establishment-backed candidate with a fundraising and polling lead over two chief rivals. Dr. Greg Brannon, a tea party favorite, and the Rev. Mark Harris, who has drawn support from social conservatives, have enough of a statewide impact to challenge him.
"Each candidate is filling out the stereotypes in the Republican Party as it exists today," said Brad Crone, a Democratic campaign strategist who does not work on federal campaigns.
There are five other candidates who have filed to run in the Republican primary, but political analysts say they have not thus far built the kind of organizations needed to contend for a statewide office.
"It's hard to imagine anyone else, any of the other candidates, having a legitimate shot," said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University n Raleigh. "It would take a game-changing kind of situation for one of those lesser-known candidates to catch up to Harris and Brannon."
The winner of the primary will take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and the winner of the Libertarian primary.
There will be a Democratic primary between Hagan and Will Stewart, a small-business owner and self-described "average guy" from Hampstead, and Ernest Reeves of Greenville, who registered to run just before the close of filing Friday. Crone, McLennan and others who have discussed this race say an incumbent has little to fear from virtually unknown challengers.
The Libertarian primary will feature Sean Haugh, a longtime party activist, and Tim D'Annunzio, who has twice run for Congress as a Republican. Fewer than 0.5 percent of North Carolina voters are registered as Libertarians.
Before Republicans can focus on Hagan, however, the GOP contenders have to take on the task of differentiating themselves from one another.
Candidate filing for the May 6 primary closed Friday at noon. In addition to U.S. Senate, candidates for the U.S. House, the state General Assembly, the state Supreme Court, district attorney and local offices across the state filed to run this year.
In addition to the three front runners, the remainder of the Republican U.S. Senate field includes Jim Snyder, a Lexington attorney and relatively late entry into the race. He was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 2008 and could leverage support based on name recognition. Edward Kryn, a retired doctor from Clayton, Heather Grant, a nurse from Wilkesboro, and former Shelby mayor Ted Alexander are also on the ballot. Alex Lee Bradshaw of Icard registered to run as a Republican just before filing closed.
But Tillis, Harris and Brannon are leading the race in most ways that can be measured, such as polling, fundraising and endorsements.
Based on those endorsements, the three top candidates have taken on very specific roles.
Tillis, a former business consultant who has been state House Speaker for the past two years, has drawn support from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who hosted a fundraiser for him, and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, whose PAC has donated to his campaign. He has also gotten support from GOPAC, an organization that helps recruit mainstream Republican candidates, and BIPAC, a national committee that supports business-friendly candidates.
That establishment support is a double-edged sword from Tillis, who has faced criticism from the hard-right, tea party wing of the Republican Party. Tillis has, by and large, skipped candidates forums hosted by tea party-aligned groups.
"We can't afford to nominate a candidate to take on Kay Hagan that hides from the grassroots conservatives in his own party by dodging candidate forums," Brannon wrote in a fundraising email.
In an advertisement, Brannon takes another shot at Tillis, showing his face as a narrator says voters are "fed up with career politicians."
Asked about this, Tillis points out that, until 2007, when he was sworn into the state House, the only body to which he had been elected was a local PTA board. He doesn't shy away from what government experience he does have.
"One thing that's going to be a stark difference, these other candidates – many of them are very good people. Let's say all of them. The big difference between them and me is what they're going to tell the people of North Carolina," he said. "These people are going to tell you about something they may do. I get to tell you about the things I have done as speaker of the House."
Brannon has leaned heavily on his affinity with the tea party, generally seen as the wing of the party that believes in paring back government spending and severely curtailing the role of the federal government in the economy.
"I have a man-crush," radio talker Glenn Beck said recently while interviewing Brannon.
The Cary obstetrician has also gotten favorable nods from Fox News personality Ann Coulter and endorsements from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie, all favorites of the tea party. Brannon's list of endorsements also includes iCaucus, a group of North Carolina tea party groups, the Beaufort tea party, Conservatives for Guilford County, Moore TEA Citizens and the political action committee for FreedomWorks, a national group that helps organize conservative activists.
"We can't just send somebody to Washington. We need to send the right person to Washington," Matt Kibbe, president of the FreedomWorks PAC, said at a recent Raleigh event. "It's our best judgment that Greg will join some people I'm pretty proud of in Washington – guys like Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Rand Paul."
Harris meanwhile has tapped support from fellow minister and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, along with several North Carolina political figures such as former state Senate budget chairman Pete Brunstetter, former Sen. Jim Jacumin and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake. He has also won endorsements from three national political action committees: National Organization for Marriage, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council. All three cited Harris' credentials as a social conservative in their endorsements.
"Harris is a pro-life, pro-family conservative who will lead on critical issues from the moment he arrives in Washington," said Penny Nance, chief executive of the Concerned Women PAC.
The challenge for Harris and Brannon, said McLennan, is to build upon their natural constituencies and build enough support to overtake the lead, or at least prevent Tillis from winning the 40 percent of the primary vote he will need to avoid a runoff.
"It will be interesting to see if (they)... can team up against the establishment candidate," McLennan said, noting that has happened in other campaigns across the country.
In the meantime, he said, Tillis will be trying to hold on to his support from mainstream Republican backers while trying to peel off enough social and tea party conservatives to avoid a second primary. McLennan pointed to Tillis remarks earlier this week in which he said he had "serious concerns" about the minimum wage and its effects on the free market as calibrated to appeal to tea party conservatives.
"Tillis has got a very long tight-rope to walk," McLennan said.