RALEIGH, N.C. — The GOP establishment is piling on in its support of Thom Tillis.
Two sources confirm to the National Journal that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will endorse the North Carolina House speaker, the Republican front-runner for his party's Senate nomination who is fighting off an array of opponents in a primary. The endorsement is expected before the state's May 6 primary.
One source with knowledge of the situation said the chamber also plans to air TV ads on his behalf, a big boost for a candidate who already holds a sizable fundraising advantage over his intra-party foes.
The business group's backing is hardly a shock: The state's speaker of the House is seen as the most establishment-friendly candidate in the North Carolina Republican field and is generally considered the only one capable of defeating Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the fall. Tillis has already participated in fundraisers with Karl Rove and GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, and late last month the Rove-backed American Crossroads announced it would run ads in his support.
But the timing of the chamber's support of Tillis, coming nearly a month before the primary, might surprise some, and counts as another example of the Republican establishment trying to use its influence to bolster candidates it considers the most viable in general elections. Although eager to avoid unelectable candidates like Todd Akin or Christine O'Donnell, top GOP strategists have been wary of overtly backing their favored candidates because of the backlash it might incite among grassroots conservatives.
So far this year, they have carefully selected supporting only the candidates they consider the safest bets. (Crossroads, in addition to backing Tillis, has also run ads on behalf of a Republican Senate candidate in Alaska, Dan Sullivan.)
The establishment's show of support might be winning over some conservatives, too. Tillis said Monday that he had received the endorsement of National Right to Life, an advocacy group that opposes abortion rights.
Republicans are hoping that Tillis not only wins the Republican primary but earns at least 40 percent of the vote, the threshold candidates must reach to avoid a runoff election that would cost him both time and money. His opponents, mindful that a runoff is likely their only remaining chance to win the nomination, are stepping up their criticism of Tillis in hopes of keeping him below 40 percent.
North Carolina is considered a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans in the fall and is central to their plans to reclaim the Senate majority. Hagan, however, is sitting on a mammoth war chest: Her campaign said Monday that she had raised $2.8 million in the first fundraising quarter and had $8.3 million on hand at the end of March.
Tillis's campaign said Monday that it had raised $1.3 million in the year's first quarter.