Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has gone to meddling in next month’s North Carolina Republican Senate primary.
The Senate Majority PAC, which is closely associated with Reid, last week began a $1 million TV ad campaign against state House Speaker Thom Tillis in what is likely an effort to influence the outcome of the May 6 GOP primary.
The ad is designed to help Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by wounding or defeating Tillis – forcing him into a runoff if he fails to win 40 percent. Tillis is seen by both Democrats and Republicans in Washington as the strongest potential challenger to Hagan.
The ad goes after Tillis on questions that could resonate with both evangelical and tea party factions of the GOP. Two Tillis staffers – including his chief of staff who was also his roommate in Raleigh – had affairs with lobbyists. Tillis accepted their resignations after news stories but gave them generous severance packages.
The ad features grainy photos of a couple in what appears to be a club or restaurant, and says: “Thom Tillis: Spending our money to clean up his mess.”
The Hagan campaign also last week began running its first radio ads of the campaign, which took up a similar theme.
The Democrats, although they deny it, seem to be following the playbook they used to help re-elect Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who like Hagan was regarded as a vulnerable Democratic incumbent in a swing state in 2012.
Reid’s PAC ran ads against all three GOP primary candidates in Missouri in 2012. The ads against GOP front-runner John Brunner questioned whether he was “a reliable conservative,” while the ones attacking Rep. Todd Akin called him “too conservative” – which of course was like throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch.
Akin, the candidate whom the Democrats wanted to face, won the primary. Sure enough, he imploded, making his now infamous comment that “legitimate rape” rarely resulted in pregnancy. McCaskill was re-elected 55 percent to 39 percent.
McCaskill’s media consultant was Dixon/Davis Media Group. DDMG is also Hagan’s media consultant this year, as it was in 2008 when she was first elected.
“In 2012, DDMG helped longtime client Sen. Claire McCaskill devise and execute the daring advertising strategy that lifted Tea Party Republican Todd Akin from third place to first in the Missouri Republican Primary,” the consulting firm says on its website. “After Akin’s outrageous comments on so-called ‘legitimate rape’ unmasked a dangerous strain of extremism in the national Republican Party, DDMG produced groundbreaking ads featuring survivors of sexual abuse testifying about their support for Sen. McCaskill.”
The Hagan campaign argues that it began running its radio ads to answer the $10 million in advertising that has been run against the senator – mainly by a group associated with the billionaire Koch Brothers – not to try to influence the outcome of the GOP primary.
Helms did it, too
The Democrats didn’t invent meddling in the other fellow’s primary.
The Republicans did it in 1990. That was when Republican Sen. Jesse Helms’ campaign began running TV ads before the Democratic primary accusing former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt of being too liberal and District Attorney Mike Easley of negotiating too many plea bargains with drug dealers. Of course, being liberal in a Democratic primary is no drawback.
The Helms people got the results they wanted, and Gantt won the Democratic nomination, and voters re-elected Helms 53 percent to 47 percent.
The effort by Democrats to derail the Tillis candidacy is based on a set of assumptions: that Tillis would have the most financial support of any of the GOP wannabes, has a governmental track record, and is enough of a mainstream conservative to pick up support of critical suburban swing voters.
It is also why Tillis has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former Bush adviser Karl Rove and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
There is some question about whether the deep pockets and major GOP political committee would pour money into North Carolina in the fall if either the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte or Greg Brannon, a Cary physician and favorite of the tea party enthusiasts, should win.
Conventional wisdom, of course, is often wrong. Neither Harris nor Brannon would bring with them the baggage of the legislature that Tillis does. Both would likely generate more excitement among the GOP base. Both have garnered their share of endorsements – Harris is backed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Brannon is supported by Sen. Rand Paul, talk show host Glenn Beck and columnist Ann Coulter.
But right now, the Democrats have made it pretty clear whom they don’t want to face – Tillis.
Christensen: 919-829-4532; Twitter: @oldpolhack