The biggest question headed into Tuesday's primary in North Carolina is a simple one: Will Republican Thom Tillis, the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment, get more than 40 percent of the vote and secure his party's nomination for U.S. Senate without having to endure a runoff?
More and more, it looks like Tillis will, close watchers say. Because of a vigorous effort by his allies as well as an underfunded and overmatched field of opponents, the establishment choice is on the verge of turning back tea party challengers in one of the most crucial contests of 2014.
"I think he's got about a 75 percent chance" of winning more than 40 percent, Republican strategist Larry Shaheen said of Tillis.
Added Democratic strategist and blogger Thomas Mills, "I think there's a good chance that he clears 40 percent. He's not run any sort of great campaign or made a great candidate but his main opponents, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris, have failed to capture anyone's imagination."
Brannon, a tea party-aligned obstetrician, is stumping with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) Monday. Like Brannon, Harris, a pastor, is running to Tillis's right. Neither candidate has raised the kind of money needed to compete in the state's expensive media markets. Together, the two of them raised more than $2 million through the end of March. Tillis, the state House speaker, raised more than $3 million.
"In North Carolina, what everyone always forgets is that grass roots will not carry you over the finish line," said Shaheen. "It will help you get to the starting line and push you over it."
A pair of national conservative groups known for meddling in primaries -- the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund -- have stayed on the sidelines, making it difficult for any Tillis alternatives to make big strides. By contrast, well-heeled Tillis allies have swooped in on his behalf. American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have both hit the airwaves on Tillis's behalf.
"The money behind Tillis was daunting. Had Harris or Brannon had money, it would have cost a lot more," said Mills.
All eight Republican candidates are vying for a chance to take on Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who polls show is vulnerable. The support Tillis has gotten from third-party groups has been necessary cover against apparent attempts by Democrats to undercut Tillis in the lead-up to the primary, since an extended runoff campaign would benefit her. As The Post's Rosalind S. Helderman reports, Hagan's campaign has been distributing campaign literature saying that Tillis once called President Obama’s health-care law "a great idea," potentially raising red flags about him in the minds of some conservative voters.
Turnout is expected to be a determining factor on Tuesday. If less than 14 percent of eligible primary voters cast ballots, it will be a problem for Tillis, said Shaheen.
North Carolina is expected to be one of the most competitive states in the battle for the majority, in which Republicans need to pick up six seats to win. It's the first in a string of spring and summer primaries that will test whether Republicans will nominate the most electable candidates, choose riskier options or create overtime runoff periods that will drag the process out.
A Tillis win would be a clear victory for those Republicans who worry most about electability coming off a 2012 election in which flawed nominees Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock cost the GOP winnable seats in Indiana and Missouri.
Recent polling has shown Tillis hovering around the 40 percent mark. But his campaign isn't celebrating anything preemptively. Instead, they are lowering expectations in public.
"We certainly feel like we have momentum and that we have made quick progress over the last few weeks," said Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw. "However, 40 percent is still a high threshold with eight candidates in the race. We are hopeful to reach the mark, but we are prepared for any outcome."