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Primaries displays Republican tug-of-war

May 7, 2014

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — A political insider captured the Republican nomination fending off two anti-establishment challengers Tuesday in the North Carolina race to oppose an imperiled Democratic senator, in the first of a spate of primaries testing the strength of the small-government tea party movement that first rocked the party for years ago.

The North Carolina Republican primary is a key test in the 2014 elections for control of the Senate. The Republicans, who are expected to retain control of the House of Representatives in November, are six seats away from a Senate majority and determined to put electable candidates on the ballot. Sen. Kay Hagan’s defeat in North Carolina is all but necessary if the Republicans want to take back control of the Senate.

Tillis was winning about 45 percent of the vote with ballots counted in 72 percent of the state’s precincts, easily surpassing the 40 percent needed to avoid a July runoff. Greg Brannon was trailing despite support from tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor, was third.

Also in North Carolina, former “American Idol” runner-up Clay Aiken seized a narrow lead as he sought the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers in the fall. A Democratic runoff was possible.

Sen. Hagan, whom Republicans have made a top target in their drive to win a Senate majority in the fall, won re-nomination over a pair of rivals with about 80 percent of the primary vote.

Tuesday marked the beginning of the political primary season in earnest, and over the next several months Republicans will hold numerous contests featuring incumbents or other establishment figures against tea party challengers.

Republicans are divided between more moderate, mainstream leaders and newcomers aligned with the small-government tea party movement, which has pulled the party farther to the right on issues such as immigration and taxes. During the 2012 elections, tea party-backed candidates unseated establishment-backed Republicans in some primary races, only to lose to Democratic challengers who had been considered vulnerable in the general election. The Democrats retained control of the Senate.

In Ohio, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner has defeated two tea party challengers as he seeks his 13th term in Congress. First-term Rep. David Joyce of Ohio, had a slightly tougher time but was running well ahead of his tea party rival.

“I am humbled to have such strong support from the people of the 8th Congressional District, and I look forward to continuing to lead the U.S. House in addressing our shared priorities of jobs and the economy,” Boehner said.

The Virginia-based Tea Party Leadership Fund spent some $320,000 in support of high school teacher J.D. Winteregg amid dissatisfaction among some Republic voters over Boehner’s stances on immigration and the national debt. But Boehner never faced a major threat, whose campaign headed into the last month with some $3.3 million available.

In Indiana, Republican Rep. Susan Brooks easily fended off a challenge from the right, rolling up 75 percent of the votes in a three-way race.

On the eve of North Carolina’s primary, Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, threw his weight behind the Tillis’ candidacy, calling him “a conservative” with deep roots in the state. Meanwhile, Paul campaigned for one of Tillis’ main challengers, obstetrician Greg Brannon, calling him a “dragon slayer” and the “true believer” in the eight-person primary race.

The election-eve push was all about inspiring Republicans to vote in a primary in a state that narrowly chose President Barack Obama in 2008 and Romney four years later.

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David Espo in Washington contributed to this report.

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