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Tillis Is In. Can He Win?

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The NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis has announced what many Tarheel pundits already assumed – that he’s running against US Senator Kay Hagan.

Can the man who led the effort to turn the General Assembly Republican for the first time in a century beat a vulnerable Democrat?

Of course, that question assumes he wins a GOP primary… and that is not a foregone conclusion.

I suspect the expectation that Tillis would run has kept some other potential candidates on the sidelines. A lot of Republican lawmakers and rainmakers owe Tillis – who spent a year travelling the state working to get GOP candidates elected in the historic 2010 midterm.  And it costs a lot to win a US Senate seat nowadays.  About $10 million. (Public service is expensive!)

Tillis is likely to attract a lot of support from outside North Carolina, as well. He’s seen as a proven leader that cannot be honestly or believably painted as a Tea Partying idealogue.

The only announced Tea Partier in this race is Dr. Greg Brannon.

Wariness inside the ranks

Inside the GOP grassroots there is a pretty vocal wing of opposition to Tillis, that always suspected he was too close to the Raleigh corruptocracy and unwilling to deliver on conservative initiatives.

Some in his base feel betrayed by the Voter ID measure Tillis guided through the House.  They worked hard for the GOP to win and they have expectations.

There is also disapproval of Tillis among some GOP activists because of how he arrived in Raleigh in the first place.  As the Charlotte Observer put it at the time:

Tillis Trounces Rhodes in Primary

Published on May 3, 2006, P. 3B, Charlotte Observer

State Rep. John Rhodes made enemies in Raleigh during his three years in office, earning a reputation as a flame-throwing backbencher who would never pass up an opportunity to zap legislative leaders.. Unfortunately for Rhodes, he apparently made a few too many enemies in his own district. North Mecklenburg Republicans ousted Rhodes in Tuesday’s primary, choosing Thom Tillis of Huntersville to replace him.. According to complete but unofficial results, Tillis had 63 percent of the vote.  Voter turnout was more than double the County average…

The reporter, Richard Rubin, got it right in his description of the incumbent John Rhodes. However, Rhodes was essentially vindicated by the prosecution and conviction of then-House Speaker Jim Black.

Down in Mecklenburg, GOP critics haven’t forgotten.

In 2006, Speaker Tillis was in a primary of his own against incumbent (and 2005 Americans for Prosperity Legislator of the Year) John Rhodes.  Rhodes had made a name for himself by challenging the leadership of then Speaker Jim Black and Speaker Pro tem Richard Morgan.  Tillis was “hired” to rid the state of the nuisance of Rhodes.

Will it make a difference?

If Senator Phil Berger gets into the race, could he split the “establishment” GOP vote with Tillis and give Brannon a path to victory?  A female candidate might also have enough breathing room to carve out a winning coalition.

Batten down the hatches

If Tillis does win the primary, I expect NC politics is going to get even more viscious and hysterical than it has been in the recent year – and that’s saying something.

Democrats. progressives, and liberals will take their Blueprint strategy of “evisceration” to new heights, given they’ll have millions of outside dollars flowing in from out-of-state.  All the grievances the Left is currently protesting over will be revisited.  The protests at the state capitol are all about creating “B-roll” video for news stories and campaign ads in 2014.

But Hagan is vulnerable.

Very vulnerable.

For starters, she voted for the gun control measure.  Expect that to be highlighted a lot.

More importantly, she voted for Obamacare.  By the time the election occurs, people will probably be seeing some of the impacts of this monstrosity: higher premiums, reduced coverages, and employers ditching health benefits.

Given the NC General Assembly rejected the Medicaid expansion, the federal health care law should be a major part of the campaign.

Also, by this time next year we’ll see if the GOP job creation efforts paid off.  Any improvement in the state’s abysmal unemployment rate can put a stiff wind in the Tillis campaign sails.  Otherwise, he’ll be left to argue that the GOP efforts couldn’t work because of federal government policies.  And that’s a tougher sell to low information voters.

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Pete Kaliner hosts the 3-6 p.m. drive-time slot on Asheville’s WWNC Radio. Visit his blog and listen live.

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