WASHINGTON (AP) — Thom Tillis, the Republican establishment's favored son in North Carolina, won the state's Senate nomination by running as a proud conservative who's not terribly different from his tea party and Christian-right opponents.
Democrats now hope to turn that image against him, saying he's too far right for the closely divided state.
If they succeed, they not only might help their party keep its Senate majority this November; they also could prove that mainstream Republicans still haven't figured out how to harness tea party energy without getting scorched.
It won't be easy. Tillis is a well-funded candidate now turning his full attention to Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat and a top Republican target. Conservative groups already have spent millions of dollars on TV ads pounding Hagan, mostly for her support of "Obamacare," the president's health care overhaul.
Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House, avoided a primary runoff Tuesday by winning about 46 percent of the vote in an eight-person field. While short of a majority, he easily cleared the state's 40 percent threshold.
Tillis' victory will encourage establishment Republicans nationwide. He fended off tea party leader Greg Brannon and prominent Baptist minister Mark Harris, plus five lesser-known candidates, by rallying business leaders and elected Republicans to his side. He was endorsed by Mitt Romney, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Right to Life and the National Rifle Association.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had campaigned for Brannon, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee supported Harris. But Brannon and Harris raised modest sums, and key anti-establishment groups like the Club for Growth stayed out of the race.
Now the question is whether Tillis hewed so closely to his anti-establishment challengers that he will have trouble attracting moderate voters in a state President Barack Obama won once and lost once. If Tillis stumbles, Democrats will say the supposed "civil war" between establishment and anti-establishment Republicans is a fiction meant to mask an almost uniformly hard-right party.
With Tillis as House speaker, the state Legislature slashed education spending, teacher pay raises and unemployment insurance, while also restricting access to voting and to abortions. Tillis opposes a federal minimum wage. He opposes amnesty for millions of immigrants here illegally but declines to say how the law should treat them.
Some strategists expect Tillis to tack toward the center for the general election, but that might be difficult. He has proudly said, "I led a conservative revolution in Raleigh" that liberals dislike "but conservatives love."
Hagan said in a statement, "Speaker Tillis cut public education by nearly $500 million, killed equal pay legislation, defunded Planned Parenthood, gutted unemployment insurance for 170,000 people and rejected health care for 500,000 North Carolinians" by declining to expand Medicaid. She said he cut taxes for the rich and froze teachers' pay.
Tillis portrays his legislative record as a triumph of common-sense conservatism. He says voters should elect him senator because of that legislative record. Hagan says they should reject him for precisely the same reason.
Their contest should show where voters want the conservative-liberal balance drawn in a state that often sends one Democrat and one Republican to the Senate.
Like her fellow Democrats in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska and elsewhere, Hagan must persuade anti-Obama independent voters that her support for the president's health care law does not signal blind loyalty on all issues.
Activists in both parties say the Obamacare attacks have hurt Hagan. But they also agree that Tillis can't beat Hagan by harping on the health care issue alone.
"I don't think there's anyone in North Carolina who doesn't know Kay Hagan voted for Obamacare," said longtime Republican strategist Carter Wrenn of Raleigh. The broader issue, he said, is overall disenchantment with Obama, especially among independents.
"Saying she supports Obamacare is saying she supports Obama," Wrenn said.
Veteran North Carolina Democratic adviser Gary Pearce predicts Tillis' strategy will amount to: "I'm going to fight Obama, and she's going to support Obama. ... That's all you're going to hear from now on."
It's a Republican strategy likely to play out in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alaska, Colorado and New Hampshire, where Democratic senators seek re-election. They are among the GOP's priorities in its drive to gain six Senate seats and control the Senate during Obama's last two years in office.
Tillis' nomination gives North Carolina a head start in the effort.
"If the election is a referendum on Obamacare, then Kay Hagan will probably lose," said North Carolina Democratic strategist and blogger Thomas Mills. "If it's a referendum on the state General Assembly, Thom Tillis is going to have a hard time."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and politics for The Associated Press.