Democrats Meddling in North Carolina Republican Primary

New ad mimics tactics that Democrats used to boost Todd Akin in 2012 Senate primary.

Thom Tillis (R) North Carolina during an interview at Roll Call in Washington, D.C.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
April 16, 2014, 7 a.m.

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.

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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. 

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