Democrats are getting involved in the North Carolina Republican primary, a sign that the party is hoping to encourage GOP voters to nominate weaker candidates in closely contested primaries.
A new ad from the Senate Majority PAC targets the Tarheel State's GOP front-runner, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, whom both parties regard as the only Republican running who can defeat Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The 30-second spot, backed by an ad buy worth nearly $1 million (news first reported by The Washington Post), cites two resignations of top Tillis aides for conducting extramarital affairs with lobbyists.
The timing and language of the spot appears targeted specifically at Republican primary voters. The accusation of sexual misconduct, not to mention public corruption, is designed to resonate with evangelical voters, a major voting bloc among North Carolina Republicans. And the ad's final words are designed to question Tillis's fiscally conservative credentials.
"Thom Tillis: Spending our money to clean up his mess," the narrator says.
Tillis is racing toward North Carolina's May 6 primary, hoping to reach the 40 percent threshold necessary to avoid a costly runoff against one of his Republican opponents. In the last month, he's received the backing of two pillars of the Republican establishment, American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both of which hope to help him win the primary outright.
Senate Majority PAC's involvement looks like a counter to their efforts. One Republican strategist tracking the race called it a "very calibrated" action to speak to GOP primary voters in hopes of getting them to vote for someone else in the primary. Other Republicans were more blunt about the opposition party's move.
"Harry Reid and far-left liberals hit the panic button yesterday," said Jordan Shaw, Tillis's campaign manager. "They have given up on propping up Kay Hagan, and they know their only chance at victory is meddling in the Republican primary. It won't work."
A spokesman for Senate Majority PAC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have played in GOP primaries before, most notably in Missouri in 2012, when the party ran ads boosting GOP Rep. Todd Akin. The Republican congressman won the nomination and infamously went on to lose the red-state race after suggesting women's bodies can prevent pregnancy after being raped.
The success of that strategy last time led many analysts to speculate the party would again attempt to influence Republican races, notably in states with contentious primaries like North Carolina and Georgia. So far, Democrats have been reluctant to do so for fear of wasting valuable resources. But the North Carolina spot would seem to be designed to hurt Tillis in a primary while injecting a potentially damaging issue into the race that could also hurt him in a general election.
Update, 1 p.m.:
A Democrat involved in the race disputes that the new ad is tantamount to the party meddling in a GOP primary. The ad's content, the source adds, is not a new issue and would be just as effective defining Tillis for a general election as a primary.
"This is an issue that has been raised widely by the news media, organizations, people across the state, and even Republicans and will continue to be a defining issue among voters across the state for Speaker Tillis," said the source.
This article appears in the April 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.