The 2014 U.S. Senate race in North Carolina is starting to look more like the 2016 presidential contest.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday endorsed Thom Tillis in the Republican primary, making him the third White House hopeful to pick a favorite in the race. The move did not come as a surprise, telegraphed days earlier in a leaked report to a conservative publication.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is supporting Greg Brannon, the candidate aligned with the tea party, and plans to attend a Charlotte campaign rally Monday.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is backing Mark Harris, a fellow Baptist pastor. Huckabee came to Raleigh for a Harris fundraiser earlier this year.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
All three men are making early moves toward the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and their picks in the race reflect the differences between them. It also gives them a toehold with supporters of the North Carolina candidates, who can return the favor in two years if they decided to run.
In backing Tillis, Bush called him a “proven conservative leader with an impressive track record of results.”
“It is critically important that Republicans win a majority in the U.S. Senate, and I am confident that the road to a majority runs through Thom Tillis in North Carolina,” Bush added in a statement distributed by the Tillis campaign.
Tillis called himself an admirer of Bush for years. “His record in Florida speaks for itself and he is one of the most respected leaders we have in this nation,” he said.
Brannon responded to the endorsement Thursday during an appearance on Glenn Beck’s radio program, suggesting it’s just another establishment figure fighting against grassroots conservatives. He called Bush “Mr. Common Core” – a line of attack Brannon has used against Tillis, who he says did nothing to stop it in North Carolina. Tillis now opposes the national education standards trumpeted by Bush.
Democrat Kay Hagan, likewise, has her 2016 connections. She is backing Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination and it wouldn’t be surprising to see either Hillary or Bill Clinton campaign for her this fall.