CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The struggle for control of the Republican Party is getting an early voter test in North Carolina, where former presidential nominee Mitt Romney and tea party favorite Rand Paul on Monday pushed their own candidates for the right to challenge Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November.
On the eve of Tuesday's primary, Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, assured Republicans that House Speaker Thom Tillis is "a conservative" with deep roots in the state. Paul, meanwhile, called his candidate, obstetrician Greg Brannon, a "dragon slayer" and the "true believer" in an eight-person race watched nationally for its influence over the party and the makeup of the U.S. Senate.
Even Hagan, one of the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbents, got involved in the Republican primary by taking a page out of her party's political playbook. In a mailing, she hit Tillis, the fundraising leader in the GOP pack, for saying President Barack Obama's controversial health care law is "a great idea," even as he campaigns to repeal it. Tillis' full quote called the law "a great idea that can't be paid for." Hagan voted for "Obamacare."
The election-eve push was all about inspiring Republicans to vote in Tuesday's GOP primary in a state that narrowly chose Obama in 2008 and Romney four years later. Tuesday's balloting is being hotly monitored in a year in which Republicans are six seats away from a Senate majority and determined to put electable candidates on the ballot.
The primary might not answer the question. If no candidate gets more than 40 percent of the vote Tuesday, Republicans continue their contest through a July runoff — costing the party time and money that could otherwise be spent attacking Hagan. Her defeat is all but necessary if Republicans want to take back control of the Senate, and party leaders were hoping to settle their contest and unite as soon as possible.
"You can't defeat Kay Hagan with a factionalized (party)," Tillis said.
The North Carolina GOP primary is a key test in the 2014 elections for control of the Senate, and the two leading candidates deployed party leaders to help inspire voters to turn out at the polls.
North Carolina needs "a dragon slayer, and that dragon slayer is Dr. Greg Brannon," Paul, the Kentucky senator, told 250 people downtown near the NASCAR Hall of Fame, suggesting Brannon's strong conservative beliefs would shake up the status quo in Washington. "I'm here today because Greg Brannon is a true believer and we need true believers in Congress," Paul added.
Romney, meanwhile, tried to assure Republican voters that Tillis could be depended upon to represent them.
"Thom is a conservative who has been solving problems in North Carolina as speaker of the House, and I am confident he will do the same in Washington," Romney wrote in an email Monday to Tillis' supporters.
Tillis was a Romney campaign surrogate two years ago. Brannon said in 2012 he wouldn't support Romney for president, because he was too moderate and like Obama would "advance tyranny."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Tillis on Monday sounded cautiously optimistic about avoiding a runoff. "I'm not the one who believes it's certain," he said. "I believe it's going to depend on turnout."
Dampening Tillis' turnout kept Hagan's campaign busy. Her camp has run a radio ad on conservative talk shows and sent mail to Republican voters suggesting Tillis is double-talking about his hopes to repeal the federal health care law.
"Watch close: seems Thom Tillis wants it both ways," the mailer says. A PAC for Senate Democrats, meanwhile, has aired a TV ad about the severance packages given to two members of Tillis' legislative staff said to have had inappropriate personal relationships with lobbyists.
Attacking the GOP front-runner is a familiar strategy for Democrats seeking weak GOP opponents. In 2010, a Democratic-leaning group hammered Sue Lowden in Nevada, helping tea partyer Sharron Angle win the GOP nomination. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a much easier time prevailing over Angle. In 2012, vulnerable Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ran ads highlighting Rep. Todd Akin's conservative credentials, tipping the scales in a crowded primary and ensuring that Akin won the GOP nomination. In the general election, McCaskill defeated Akin after the Republican made comments referring to "legitimate rape."
Brannon and another GOP candidate in the race, Mark Harris, also have suggested Tillis could be unelectable in a general campaign given his political baggage.
Harris, a Baptist minister, said Monday that Tillis is probably the candidate for a voter "if you want an establishment ... style of United States senator, someone that is going to work in the system."
"Ultimately what North Carolinians have to do is help figure who we are, and where we've moving together," Harris added.
About 4 percent of the overall electorate voted during early in-person voting that ended over the weekend. Four years ago, overall turnout for a similar primary election with a U.S. Senate race on the ballot was 14 percent.
Weiss reported from Charlotte, North Carolina. Associated Press reporter Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.