North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis scored a major victory on Tuesday night, when he won the GOP primary outright to become his party's nominee to challenge Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
Tillis garnered 46 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race for him around 9:20 p.m. He defeated Greg Brannon, an obstetrician aligned with the tea party who had support from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who finished with 27 percent of the vote, and Mark Harris, a pastor, who had focused his appeal on social conservatism and was backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had 17 percent of the vote.
The Republican needed at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid a late-summer runoff against one of his opponents.
Hagan is considered one of the cycle's most vulnerable incumbents and a top target for Republicans in their quest to take back the Senate. National groups like American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race to back Tillis during the primary, whom they saw as the strongest candidate to take on Hagan in the fall.
Hagan evidently felt the same way: Last week, her campaign sent mailers that sought to cast Tillis as too liberal, in an effort to hurt him in the primary.
Her path to victory remains difficult. North Carolina voters are not fond of President Barack Obama, whose approval rating is under water, 41 percent to 49 percent, according to a recent New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Hagan’s own approval rating is split at 44 percent.
But Tillis has some potential vulnerabilities, too, which the Hagan campaign will likely exploit. During his tenure as speaker, the Legislature produced a lot of controversial and conservative legislation, including laws requiring voter identification. Democrats argue that this shows he is too conservative for the statewide electorate.
Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has already been running ads attacking Tillis for giving severance packages to former staffers who were forced to resign after it came out that they were having affairs with lobbyists.
The race is rated Tilts Democratic by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.