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For almost 95 years, the dominant question facing any North Carolinian has been over shades of blue: Duke or UNC.
But in the final months before May’s Republican primary to select a challenger to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, the debate among Tar Heel Republicans has focused on shades of red — specifically, just how conservative their nominee and state should be.
Hagan’s seat marks a prime pickup opportunity for Senate Republicans, who must net six seats in November to win the majority. Recent automated polls have shown a tight race: Hagan’s GOP opponents are ahead by a couple points, and their leads almost always fall within the margin of error.
Though Mitt Romney won the state by a narrow margin in 2012, the Republicans easily regained the governor’s mansion just two years after sweeping the legislature, giving the GOP total control of the state government for the first time since the late 1800s.
So as plum as November seems for the GOP, this spring and summer are shaping up to be a political free-for-all, with several anti-establishment candidates bidding to force state Speaker Thom Tillis from a May 6 primary into a July runoff.
“Our goal, our job, is to get in the runoff,” said Republican consultant Tom Perdue, who is working for Mark Harris, a Mike Huckabee-endorsed, conservative Baptist pastor. “When we say we think we can win, that’s all we’re saying, is we think we can get into the runoff.”
Perdue, a Georgia-based consultant who was once retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ top political operative, said he joined the Harris campaign because he believed there was a window for a true conservative against the “slick,” “establishment” Tillis.
“There is no hands-down front-runner,” Perdue said. “If he were going to have been the hands-down winner, he would have had most of the House members supporting him by now ... if he were really going to be the hands-down winner, he would have raised a lot more money last year. And if he were going to be the front-runner, you wouldn’t see six or seven people jumping into this race.”
Harris and Greg Brannon, a physician, are the two most viable primary challengers to Tillis, according to a half-dozen state-based sources, including some unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. However, Brannon hit a significant bump in the road Tuesday, when a Wake County jury found him liable for misleading investors in a civil suit.
None of the GOP candidates enjoy high levels of name recognition or fundraising. According to the most recent Federal Election Commission data, Brannon had $142,329 in cash on hand and Harris had $255,800 at the end of last year. Tillis reported having almost $1.3 million in the bank.