The North Carolina GOP primary election earlier this week provided a jolt to the 2014 congressional midterm campaign and further fueled speculation that the Republicans may well recapture control of the Senate in November.
By choosing well-regarded state House speaker Thom Tillis over two other Tea Party candidates to challenge Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan this fall, North Carolina Republicans followed their party’s emerging pattern of making shrewder primary choices than they did in the two previous elections.
Tillis, a favorite of the GOP establishment, captured 46 percent of the Republican vote or six percentage points more than he needed to avoid a runoff with Greg Brannon, the second place finisher.
While there are plenty more primary contests ahead that will determine the outcome of the November election – including two next week in Nebraska and West Virginia -- political experts view the North Carolina battle as a bellwether of the GOP’s political fortunes in 2014 and beyond.
“It’s impossible to quantify given that we are just at the start of the primary season nationally; but it’s reasonable to wonder whether the GOP primary electorate is learning from its primary mistakes of the past two cycles when poor Senate nominees lost winnable general elections,” wrote Kyle Kondik, managing editor Larry J. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” Political report.
Party leaders voiced regret after watching candidates like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana ride the momentum of the Tea Party movement to primary wins, then self-destruct in the general election with missteps such as Akin's 2012 comment about "legitimate rape."
Harry Reid and the Democrats currently hold a 55-to-45 seat majority in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. The Republicans need a net pickup of six seats in order to reclaim control of the Senate for the first in more than seven years.
In the latest Crystal Ball forecasts, made before Tuesday’s North Carolina primary, Republicans were on track to pick up between four and eight Senate seats in November. The seven most vulnerable Democratic held seats are in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Democrats reportedly were hoping for more primary chaos from the GOP, but with Tillis advancing to the general election, Hagan is at best 50/50 to win a second term over Tillis, according to the Crystal Ball.
Tillis has road-tested a number of issues that Republicans think will be winners for them this fall, including closely linking Hagan to an unpopular president and his unpopular Affordable Care Act. But Hagan and her Democratic allies have plans of their own, to connect Tillis to a series of new laws in North Carolina that provoked a strong backlash and generated “Moral Monday” protests in the state capital, The Washington Post reported.
In West Virginia, Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is expected to sail to the Senate nomination. When she announced her candidacy shortly after the 2012 election, some outside conservative groups made it clear that they wanted a more ideological nominee, but no one emerged to take on the daughter of a former Republican governor. Capito will face underdog Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) in the general election to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller.
The main event next Tuesday is the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska, where voters will choose a candidate to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns.
For months, the race has effectively been between ex-state Treasurer Shane Osborn and Midland University President Ben Sasse, according to Kondik. “That is seemingly a battle between the establishment (Osborn) and the Tea Party (Sasse), although we’ve been told recently that national Republicans are not as opposed to Sasse as commonly believed.”
In any event, it has been a bruising battle between the two frontrunners, which is similar to the 2012 GOP Senate primary, when Attorney General Jon Bruning and state Treasurer Don Stenberg waged a vicious contest for the nomination. There are now hints that the Osborn-Sasse battle might be clearing a path for banker Sid Dinsdale, who recently put nearly $1 million of his own money into the race.
The winner of the Republican primary will be heavily favored over attorney David Domina, who faces no real opposition in the Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, Democrats’ hopes for making some inroads in the GOP hold on the House appear to be fading. The GOP majority is currently 233 to 200. According to the latest Crystal Ball projections, Republicans are likely to pick up five to eight House seats net in November.
Incumbent Democrats are fighting to hang on to six seats – two in Arizona and one each in California, Illinois, New Hampshire and New York. Republicans, meanwhile, are facing tossup campaigns in Colorado, Iowa, New Jersey and New York.
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