By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A North Carolina Republican backed by the party establishment fought off Tea Party and evangelical conservative rivals on Tuesday to win the nomination to take on vulnerable Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan in November.
State House of Representatives Speaker Thom Tillis was projected to capture more than 40 percent of the vote against Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon and evangelical minister Mark Harris, surpassing the amount needed to avoid a costly July runoff with the second-place finisher.
Tillis' victory sets up a general election battle with Hagan that will be among the country's hardest-fought and closely watched Senate races. Republicans must pick up six seats for a Senate majority.
The Republican primary in North Carolina was the first in a string of contests over the next month that will begin to determine the success of the party establishment's effort to beat back the conservative Tea Party movement and recapture the Senate majority that eluded it in 2010 and 2012.
Tillis, who portrayed himself as a fiscal and social conservative to counter his two rivals, was helped by more than $2.6 million in advertising from two powerful outside advocacy groups - the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce, and American Crossroads, founded by strategist Karl Rove.
The North Carolina race also attracted a flood of endorsements from high-profile outsiders. Tillis gained the backing of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, while Brannon was joined for a campaign stop on Monday by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and Harris won the backing of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Hagan, who easily won renomination to a second Senate term, was quick to turn her attention to the battle with Tillis after the vote. She said his conservative record of cutting public education and supporting tax cuts for the wealthy was "out of sync with our common sense North Carolina values."
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney)