Commentary

Christensen: Tillis' Senate push gets Rove blessing

rchristensen@newsobserver.comOctober 5, 2013 

Editor's note: This column incorrectly noted that the GOP gubernatorial primary between Robin Hayes ad Richard Vinroot occurred in 1976. The primary took place in 1996.

Karl Rove, the chief strategist for President George W. Bush, has recruited the past two Republican senators from North Carolina. Now he wants to help make Thom Tillis a senator.

When Sen. Jesse Helms was in declining health, it was Rove who began lining up Elizabeth Dole, the two-time Cabinet secretary, to run for Helms’ seat in 2002. When Democratic Sen. John Edwards was preparing to run for president in 2004, Rove invited Richard Burr, a promising young congressman from Winston-Salem, to the White House and urged him to run for the Senate.

Now, with the Republicans trying to retake control of the Senate in 2014, North Carolina is too important to be left to chance. So Rove – although no longer in the White House – is trying to make Tillis his Tar Heel hat trick.

Tillis was in Washington last week attending an American Crossroads Summit, rubbing elbows with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. American Crossroads, the super PAC formed by Rove, spent $105 million in independent expenditures in the last election cycle, and its sister organization Crossroads GPS spent $70.8 million, so Rove still has some juice.

Rove is scheduled to attend some fundraisers next month for Tillis in North Carolina.

Before Rove, Republican senators were largely chosen by Helms’ Raleigh-based political organization, the National Congressional Club. It was the club that recruited John East in 1980, David Funderburk in 1986 and Lauch Faircloth in 1992 – and, of course, backed Helms’ reelection efforts. The collapse of the club left a vacuum, which Rove filled.

With control of the Senate at stake, the national party is not going to leave it to state GOP chairman Claude Pope to find a suitable candidate to take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan next year. While it is possible for Republicans to take control of the U.S. Senate without winning North Carolina, it would be difficult.

The Democrats hold a 52-46 margin, really 54-46 including the two independents who vote with the Democrats. To win control, the GOP would have to hold on to all their seats, pick up three open seats now held by Democrats and and beat at least two Democratic incumbents, the most likely of which are Hagan, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor or Alaska Sen. Mark Begich.

Tillis has received encouragement from both Rove and the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. They view Hagan as vulnerable, and the last thing they want to see is a repeat of last year, when the GOP chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill ended with Republican candidate Todd Akin’s ill-chosen remarks about rape.

National strategists are looking for someone who will give the party its best chance of knocking off Hagan, and they believe that Tillis – with his political leadership experience, his business background and his home in the Charlotte metro area – give the GOP its best chance.

Dole and Burr had relatively clear shots to the GOP nomination, but Tillis will have to earn it.

Tillis is not a beloved figure in the Republican Party, with some conservatives not quite trusting him and others finding him abrasive. He’s also been tarnished by some of the problems of his former lieutenants. If he is the nominee, Hagan would likely try to make the legislature the issue.

His major opponent is likely to be the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, the president of the State Baptist Convention of North Carolina, who will run as a social conservative. Nor can Cary physician Greg Brannon, who has close ties to the tea party movement, be totally discounted.

Evangelicals are the largest bloc in today’s Republican Party. Along with the tea party, they make up more than half of the GOP, according to study released last week by Greenberg Quinlan Roster Research, a Democratic polling firm in D.C.

That means that Tillis, who is basically a business and fiscal conservative, will have to appeal to his party’s right to win the nomination – the same problem that faced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney when he was seeking the presidential nomination last year.

Harris and Brannon are likely to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative. Harris has hired a man who knows how do just that: Tom Perdue, a Georgia consultant whom The New York Times once described as “brilliant and ruthless.”

Perdue was the strategist behind Robin Hayes’ 1996 GOP primary campaign for governor, when Hayes took down frontrunner Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. Among other things, Vinroot was attacked for having cut a ribbon for the opening of a Planned Parenthood facility.

The Democrats believe a preacher with no political experience who is outspoken on issues such as gay marriage and abortion would be toxic among key swing voters, such as suburban women who may have voted for Dole or Burr.

Hayes, who is co-chairman of Harris’ campaign, predicted the primary will be positive. We shall see.

It seems likely that Rove’s third attempt to elevate a U.S. senator in North Carolina will be his toughest lift.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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