The establishment wing of the Republican Party scored a major victory in North Carolina Tuesday when state House Speaker Thom Tillis won the party's nomination for U.S. Senate, turning back tea party challengers who threatened to complicate the GOP's effort to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in a key midterm battleground.
"The party has triangulated pretty well so far and this was the first test," said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "Tillis and his people have worked hard to control how this plays out. But they have to be careful to not rub the base's nose in their success."
Tillis's ability to gallop ahead late in the race, in spite of the steep competition he faced on his right, signals that the Republican establishment may be better poised than previously thought to push through its favored candidates in Senate primaries later this month in Georgia and Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces Matt Bevin, a tea party challenger.
McConnell, who headlined fundraisers for Tillis, leads by a significant margin in the polls and has benefited from Bevin's stumbles, which include a stop at a rally for legalized cockfighting — an appearance McConnell's campaign has lampooned.
In Georgia, Jack Kingston, a 10-term Republican congressman and a powerful appropriator, has also seen his campaign blessed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other mainstream Republican groups, and he has since climbed to near the top of the polls, lagging slightly behind wealthy businessman David Perdue, according to an April automated survey.
The rest of the field, filled mostly with tea party favorites such as Rep. Paul Broun, who once said President Obama upholds the "Soviet constitution," has struggled to combat the financial heft of the leading pair.
By winning more than 40 percent of the Republican vote, Tillis avoided having to endure a primary runoff election. Now, he can focus his attention on Hagan, a top target of national Republicans looking to net the six seats they need to pick up the Senate majority this fall.
In his victory speech, Tillis sought to link Hagan to the Obama administration. "If want to change the mess of Obamacare, we have to change our senator," said Tillis.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky accused Tillis of embracing "extreme, far-right tea party positions" during the primary.
Tillis was bolstered against a field of seven other GOP hopefuls by well-heeled outside groups who regarded him as the most electable candidate in the race. American Crossroads and the Chamber spent big money to shore up Tillis's image as Democrats sought to raise questions about his position on Obamacare in advertisements during the lead up to Tuesday's vote, an apparent effort to stoke doubts about him in the minds of conservatives.
With all precincts reporting, Tillis won with 46 percent of the vote. Tea party-aligned obstetrician Greg Brannon finished second with 27 percent; and pastor Mark Harris, another tea party candidate, came in third, with 18 percent.
Neither Harris nor Brannon ever picked up much momentum despite trying to carry the tea party mantle in the race. National conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, both known for meddling on behalf of insurgent candidates, steered clear of the contest.
Tea party groups spent less than $200,000 on yard signs, phone banks and online ads to boost Brannon, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.
Tillis, on the other hand, had prominent Republicans in his corner. He had the support of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Brannon campaigned with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Monday, but it wasn't enough to overcome Tillis's structural advantages in the sprawling, populous state. The challenge of running as an underdog is amplified in North Carolina since there are so many media markets where advertising is expensive.
Paul endorsed Tillis after he clinched the GOP nomination.
Hagan, a low-key senator who was first elected along with the Obama wave of 2008, faces a tougher contest this time around.
Robert Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist, said he believes that Hagan can win, and predicted the race would be a "toss up." But he acknowledged that turning out Democratic voters for a midterm election has often been difficult. Republicans, he added, have done a better job this cycle of filtering candidates and giving Democrats fewer targets.
"The Republican establishment is trying to prevent a repetition of what happened in Missouri and Indiana last time, and in Delaware and Alaska before that, when they nominated people who were off the charts," he said.
North Carolina, which was a blue state six years ago but was carried by Romney in 2012, has tilted to the right in the past year, with Tillis, fellow GOP state legislators, and Gov. Pat McCrory, who was elected in 2012, aggressively pushing a conservative agenda, blocking the state's expansion of Medicaid, cutting taxes, and enacting anti-abortion regulations.
Democrats will look to closely associate Tillis with the flurry of activity at the state capital, which has caused unrest. In February, more than 80,000 people swarmed into Raleigh to champion progressive causes and protest the state legislature's controversial conservative measures to tighten voter registration procedures and implement new election rules.
Hagan backers have also been highlighting a video from 2011, when Tillis said Republicans need to "divide and conquer" people on public assistance, which have drawn partisan comparisons to Romney's infamous "47 percent" remarks during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Voters also went to the polls in Indiana and Ohio, where House Speaker John A. Boehner easily defeated tea party challengers.
Updated on 5/7 with final results in the Senate primary
Matea Gold contributed to this post