North Carolina Primary: What to Watch

North Carolina Speaker of the House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, and his wife Susan campaign in Huntersville, N.C., neighborhood north of Charlotte, on May 5, 2014, the evening before the primary election.

Photograph by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

North Carolina Speaker of the House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, and his wife Susan campaign in Huntersville, N.C., neighborhood north of Charlotte, on May 5, 2014, the evening before the primary election.

Will Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s state House speaker, win at least 40 percent of the vote in a Republican U.S. Senate primary today?

That’s the big question on primary day in the Tarheel State, one of the biggest states holding a consequential Senate election in November.

Tillis needs to clear the 40 percent threshold against seven opponents to avoid a runoff July 15. The super-political action committee American Crossroads, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney are trying to push Tillis across the finish line so that he can replenish his campaign treasury and prepare as soon as possible for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who’s well-funded.

“It’s entirely been about trying, if possible, to avoid a runoff,” Steven Law, chief executive officer of American Crossroads, told Bloomberg News for a story yesterday. “That just gives us a lot more time for Tillis to reload financially and to avoid a protracted ideological fight within the party. And it puts us in a position to get going after Hagan much earlier.”

The pro-Tillis side doesn’t want to give opponents more than two months in a runoff campaign to coalesce the anti-Tillis vote around a single opponent. Tillis’s top rivals include Greg Brannon, an obstetrician who’s backed by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Hagan is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for re-election, and unseating her is part of the Republican game plan to secure a Senate majority in November. Democrats control 55 of the 100 Senate seats.

To give you an idea of how Republican primary voters are distributed around North Carolina, here are the 20 counties that cast the most votes in the 2012 primary for lieutenant governor:

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Here’s a look at some other North Carolina primaries worth watching today. Polling stations close at 7:30 p.m. EDT. Here’s a list of all candidates on the primary ballot.

2nd District (parts of Cary and Fayetteville; Sanford). Clay Aiken, the 2003 “American Idol” runner-up, and former state commerce secretary Keith Crisco are the main Democratic contenders for the seat that two-term Republican Renee Ellmers is defending. Aiken and Crisco have tapped their personal wealth to help fund their campaigns. Ellmers, who clashed with radio host Laura Ingraham over immigration policy earlier this year, faces an underfunded opponent in her primary.

3rd District (Jacksonville, Outer Banks, parts of Greenville and Wilmington). Ten-term Republican Rep. Walter Jones has antagonized Republican leaders with his votes for bank regulations and against John Boehner’s re-election as Speaker, and for saying last year that former Vice President Dick Cheney probably will join Lyndon Johnson “rotting in hell.”

Jones is opposed by Taylor Griffin, a former White House aide and campaign spokesman for George W. Bush who’s backed by political donations from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and billionaire Paul Singer. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for whom Griffin worked as a spokesman during her 2008 vice-presidential campaign, sent Griffin a donation from her political action committee a few days ago.

Two outside groups, including a Republican pro-Israel advocacy organization, have aired ads promoting Griffin and attacking Jones, who voted against enhanced economic sanctions against Iran. The congressman touts his political independence and attention to the district. Jones’s name identification is high in the district, parts of which his late namesake father represented for more than 25 years. 

Bloomberg News profiled the Jones-Griffin primary in February. Be sure to also read more recent treatments from Slate’s Dave Weigel and CNN’s Peter Hamby.

6th District (parts of Greensboro, High Point and Burlington). That nine Republicans are seeking this district underscores its Republican lean and the pent-up demand among would-be successors after 30 years of service by Republican Howard Coble, who’s retiring. Top contenders include Rockingham County district attorney Phil Berger Jr., Greensboro councilman Zack Matheny, pastor Mark Walker and retired banking executive Bruce Voncannon. A runoff is likely.

7th District (southeast; part of Wilmington). Republican David Rouzer, a former state senator, is making a second bid for this seat after losing the closest House race of 2012 to Democrat Mike McIntyre, who’s retiring this year. Rouzer’s supporters include Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina’s adjacent 8th District. Rouzer’s top rival is Woody White, a commissioner in Hew Hanover county in and around Wilmington. White has defended his work as a lawyer, saying in a television ad that he’s worked to “protect the powerless from the powerful” and won’t “cave in to the Washington establishment.” Republicans are likely to capture this district from Democratic control in November.

12th District (parts of Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem). In this minority-majority Democratic stronghold, Democrats begin the process of picking a successor to Democrat Mel Watt, who resigned in January to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The special primary coincides with the regularly scheduled primary. A pair of elections also will be held in November.

The crowded field includes state Reps. Alma Adams and Marcus Brandon, state Sen. Malcolm Graham, lawyer Curtis Osborne and George Battle, the general counsel to the Charlotte-area school system. Adams is backed by Emily’s List, a Washington-based group aiding Democratic women who support abortion rights. Graham received a political donation from Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat and the chamber’s highest-ranking black lawmaker.

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