Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is a critical target on the GOP’s road map to capture the Senate in 2014, but Republicans’ first major hurdle in North Carolina could come from within their own ranks.
A primary looms for the national GOP’s top recruit, state Speaker Thom Tillis, as a handful of other Tar Heel conservatives consider bids. The result could hurt the GOP nominee’s chances of ousting Hagan in the general election, even if Tillis eventually wins the nod.
Hagan, a first-term senator, ran ahead of President Barack Obama when he won North Carolina in 2008. But in 2012, Mitt Romney carried the state and Republicans had expanded their grip on the state, including in the Legislature. This cycle, Hagan is one of the most vulnerable senators seeking re-election.
Tillis, who announced his candidacy in late May, already has a significant fundraising lead. But he may struggle to marshal conservative support in his own state, and several local Republicans have expressed interest in running as an alternative to him.
Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church is considering a bid. He is working with Tom Perdue, former campaign strategist for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to gauge support for a campaign.
“This [draft] effort is exploding,” Perdue said. “I’ve never seen one move so fast. People are clamoring for a true social and fiscal conservative.”
Harris has started to hire staff and appears close to making his formal entry into politics.
“This is not a campaign yet, but I’m preparing for him to be in the race,” Perdue added.
Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., is also considering running and recently pushed back her decision time a few weeks, until early July.
“I haven’t quite reached my full decision, but I think I know where I’m leaning,” Ellmers told CQ Roll Call last week.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, a five-term Republican, has said she is considering a Senate bid. Her entry would change the election by pushing Tillis to the right, although Republicans doubt she will run.
“Tillis could probably outspend her, but she could potentially mortally wound him for the general,” one operative said.
State Senate President Phil Berger told Roll Call that he is still seriously considering the primary, but he will wait to formally announce his intentions at the end of the legislative session in July. However, local Republicans do not expect Berger to jeopardize his current leadership position by running.
Greg Brannon, a tea party supporter, was the first to jump into the race and remains the only candidate apart from Tillis to declare his candidacy.
Republicans do not expect Brannon to give Tillis a strong challenge. He only raised $47,000 in the first quarter, according to online fundraising figures.
Any primary candidate will have to raise significant cash to take on Tillis, cautioned his adviser, Paul Shumaker.
“What it comes down to is having the tools to build identity and recognition for yourself,” Shumaker said. “Right now, the clock is ticking and it’s ticking fast.”
Along those lines, sources also pointed to former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Jim Cain as a possible primary contender.
Cain’s background in the Raleigh business community would help his fundraising. If he runs, “the price of victory” will climb for all the candidates, according to Todd Poole, a former top aide to Foxx.
“Cain will be able to leverage his national contacts and fundraising prowess to outpace the rest of the field,” Poole said in an email. “Some in North Carolina and DC estimate that he could raise between $18-$20 million if he is the nominee.”
The general election will likely attract a large amount of national financial support regardless of who wins the GOP nomination. But it may be still too early to say where that support will go.
“Someone like Cain could cause problems for Tillis, there’s no question,” said one Republican operative. “I think a lot donors are on the sidelines waiting to see who jumps in.”