Last year, tea party activists from around the country helped a Texas Republican named Ted Cruz overcome long odds to beat a better-known, better-funded primary opponent backed by the GOP establishment.
Could North Carolina be the next tea party triumph?
Six months before the May 6 primary, at least four GOP Senate hopefuls hope to replicate Cruz’s upset victory.
They’re appealing for tea party support in their battle to take on Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. Greg Brannon, a Cary physician, even launched a fundraising blitz Friday to mark the 240th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.
North Carolina’s race is a key to Republican hopes to retake the Senate, and many consider Hagan one of its most vulnerable Democrats. Independent groups already have spent more than $4.3 million attacking or defending her.
Though Hagan has expressed frustration with the botched roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, she’s been battered by GOP critics over her support of the law.
But Hagan, who sits on a war chest of $7.6 million, is unlikely to face a Democratic challenge.
The Republican primary, meanwhile, remains largely undefined. An October poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found no candidate with support from more than 5 percent of GOP voters.
As in other states, the primary could test the strength of tea party and more mainstream conservatives.
For now, Brannon – like Kernersville broadcaster Bill Flynn, Wilkes County nurse Heather Grant and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris – trails Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius in fundraising and name recognition.
Last month a group of tea party activists waved protest signs outside a Charlotte fundraiser for Tillis that featured former White House adviser Karl Rove, who one protester said had “declared war” on the tea party.
Tillis has out-raised his rivals with help from Washington’s top Republican leaders. Many state lawmakers have rallied behind him. Even Democrats seem to acknowledge him as the frontrunner.
On Thursday a political action committee aligned with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid launched a TV ad that attacked Tillis for siding with big insurance companies while touting Hagan’s support for health care. Tillis responded with a fundraising appeal. He called it a “badge of honor to be attacked by Harry Reid.”
Campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw said Tillis is reaching out to all Republicans.
“Thom Tillis’ record of conservative results appeals to every conservative in North Carolina regardless of what labels anyone wants to put on them,” Shaw said. “We’re not buying into the ‘Republican civil war’ story.”
Brannon and Harris are Tillis’ best-funded rivals.
Brannon has made the earliest claim on tea party support. He has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, himself elected two years ago. Paul’s father, Ron, is a former Libertarian and Republican presidential candidate.
“This race is setting up just like Kentucky in 2010 and Texas in 2012,” said spokesman Reilly O’Neal. “In those races you had a candidate that was handpicked and heavily supported by the D.C. establishment up against a tea party candidate supported by the grass-roots. In both instances the grass-roots candidate won big.”
Harris is a Baptist minister who helped lead last year’s successful fight to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Last month he met with Cruz, who has not endorsed in the race. Supporters say Harris’s support goes beyond evangelicals.
“We appeal to all segments of the Republican Party,” said spokesman Mike Rusher. “I don’t think one group is going to be able to dominate.”
A survey last year by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 37 percent of North Carolina Republican voters considered themselves members of the tea party, while 44 percent did not.
But an October Civitas poll found that 61 percent of the state’s GOP voters had a favorable view of the tea party; just 21 percent did not.
“Having a tea party identification with your name is not a negative in a primary,” said Civitas president Francis De Luca.
Polls may not reflect the passion of tea party voters.
“There’s a real energy in what I’ll call the grass roots of North Carolina politics … people who are really focused on the fundamentals of what it means to be a Republican,” said Flynn, the latest GOP candidate.
Tea party groups sprang up four years ago as an outgrowth of frustration over what conservatives saw as big government, uncontrolled spending and a departure from constitutional principles. They’ve grown to hundreds across the country.
Nationally, tea party Senate candidates have a mixed record. They’ve won in Texas, Kentucky and Utah, and lost in Missouri, Indiana and Delaware.
Last year in Texas, Cruz was a decided underdog against popular Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He finished 11 points behind Dewhurst in the primary but forced a runoff.
Casting Dewhurst as a moderate, he attracted support from tea party activists and prominent national conservatives. He won 57 percent of the vote and went on to easily defeat the Democratic candidate in November.
In North Carolina, the dynamics are different.
Cruz and Paul were the only tea party alternatives in their fights against establishment favorites. In North Carolina, more than one candidate is vying for that support.
“The big advantage for Tillis right now is the potential, primarily for Harris and Brannon, to split that very conservative tea party vote in the primary,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist from Catawba College.
Fights between party factions have embroiled Republicans in other states. Several Republican Senate incumbents face conservative opposition next year.
In South Carolina, Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham has drawn three GOP challengers. An outspoken maverick, he criticized this fall’s tea party-backed government shutdown and called Paul’s March filibuster “a political stunt.”
Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State, said events in Washington will influence the North Carolina primary. Will the conversation be about the Affordable Care Act or another government shutdown?
“If it’s about Obamacare or it’s about Tillis, then it’s going to help the tea party candidates,” Taylor said. “If it’s about the tea party (holding) the country hostage and establishment Republicans are feeling uncomfortable about that, it’s going to be bad for whoever gets the tea party mantle.”
A heated primary could hamper GOP hopes to win in November. But many Republicans say the party will come together for one reason.
“Frankly the only decision that a Republican Party voter has to make is who is the most electable in the general election and who can beat Hagan?” said Republican strategist Marc Rotterman.
John Frank of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.