Sabato's Crystal Ball

Primary Roundup: North Carolina Republicans Vote for Electability

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, U.Va. Center for Politics May 8th, 2014

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Backed by an onslaught of advertising from outside establishment Republican groups and assisted by the lack of a top-tier opponent, North Carolina state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) won his party’s Senate nomination on Tuesday night, capturing about 46% of the vote. He needed 40% to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher, Tea Party darling Greg Brannon (R).

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. At the same time, the 40% rule undoubtedly aided Tillis as well. Whereas most runoff states require winning a majority in the primary to avoid a second round of balloting, North Carolina has a lower hurdle. As Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore pointed out Tuesday night, Tillis’ vote percentage was similar to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s (R-TX) in the Lone Star State’s 2012 GOP Senate primary, but in that case Dewhurst was forced into a runoff that he lost to now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R).

Either way, the end result is the more electable candidate won the Republican nomination in the Tar Heel State.

Democrats were hoping for more primary chaos from the GOP, but the North Carolina contest now advances to the general election stage, where Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is at best 50/50 to win a second term over Tillis. This is not to say that Tillis is a perfect candidate: Democrats rightly believe that he has vulnerabilities, and Tillis had some odd moments in the primary, like sending a personal e-mail to one of his opponents complaining about negative campaigning. But the bigger problem for Democrats is that they have a significant midterm turnout problem in the Tar Heel State, which sharp election observers Nate Cohn and Sasha Issenberg recently explored in depth. As Cohn noted, North Carolina has a larger-than-average age divide, with senior citizens being more Republican and under-30 residents being more Democratic than they are nationally. The latter group doesn’t turn out for midterms the way the former does, and even in presidential elections with bigger turnout the state leans slightly to the right compared to the national results.

We’re holding the North Carolina Senate race as a Toss-up for now, but it’s easier to imagine it moving to Leans Republican than it is to Leans Democratic as we move forward. Again, that has more to do with the structure of the election and the electorate in North Carolina than it does with anything that Hagan or Tillis will do in the campaign.

In addition to North Carolina, Tuesday night featured primaries in Indiana and Ohio. The big takeaway was that not a single House member lost renomination, although not all romped. Reps. David Joyce (R, OH-14) and Renee Ellmers (R, NC-2) both were held under 60% by challengers, and Rep. Walter Jones (R, NC-3) only beat his opponent by about six points. Joyce and Ellmers were primaried from the right, while Jones, an anti-war iconoclast, faced a former George W. Bush administration official in an establishment challenge.

A few other results of note: By winning their primaries and avoiding a runoff, Alma Adams (D, NC-12) and David Rouzer (R, NC-7) are now on a glide path to election in the fall, as they are unlikely to face much opposition in the general election. We already rate NC-12 as Safe Democratic, and we’re now moving the open NC-7 to Safe Republican, from Likely Republican. The seat, which gave Mitt Romney 59% in 2012, is currently held by retiring Rep. Mike McIntyre (D). It should be a fairly easy Republican pickup.

As of this writing, former American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken (D) was just barely avoiding a runoff in the NC-2 primary against textile entrepreneur Keith Crisco (D), but the Associated Press had not called the race for him. Assuming Aiken wins, he’ll face Ellmers in a district that Romney won with 58% of the vote in 2012. We rate the race Safe Republican, and Aiken’s underwhelming primary performance only validates that rating.

Overall, no incumbent members of the House have lost renomination in the five primaries held so far in Indiana, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. However, Rep. Ralph Hall (R, TX-4) could very well lose a May 27 runoff.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating change

Coming up next week: Nebraska and West Virginia

The main attraction on next Tuesday’s primary calendar is the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska, where voters may be experiencing a little déjà vu.

For months, the race has effectively been between ex-state Treasurer Shane Osborn and Midland University President Ben Sasse. 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’s been a nasty race 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.

But a funny thing happened in that 2012 race: The war between Bruning and Stenberg allowed a third candidate, Deb Fischer, to emerge. Fischer captured the GOP nomination and is now a U.S. senator. (Bruning is now running in the Republican primary for governor.)

There are now suggestions 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 and who a Sasse-supporting outside conservative group, the Madison Project, is now attacking.

We’re not willing to say that Dinsdale will win, but the opportunity appears to exist for him to become Fischer 2.0. The winner of the Republican primary will be heavily favored over attorney David Domina (D), who has no real opposition in the Democratic primary.

In West Virginia, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R, WV-2) will cruise to the Senate nomination, which is another important development as the Republicans eye a Senate majority. When she announced her candidacy shortly after the 2012 election, some outside conservative groups made it clear that they would prefer a more ideological nominee, but no one of note ever emerged. Capito will face underdog Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) in the general election. One other race of note: West Virginia Republicans will pick a nominee to replace Capito in WV-2; there are several candidates, and perhaps the most notable one is former Maryland — yes, Maryland — Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney. The winner is likely to face former West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey (D). The district appears quite Republican on paper — Romney got 60% there in 2012 — but the Mountain State’s local Democratic leanings, which are perhaps waning, give Casey a shot at the seat. We only rate it Leans Republican.