Today in North Carolina

Two takes on two races

May 16, 2014 

— Two big races; two very different lessons to learn from each.

When the tallies came in from the May 6 primary election, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis had done something that didn’t look likely two weeks earlier. In a crowded field, he surpassed the 40-percent threshold needed to avoid a costly and time-consuming runoff.

Just down the ballot, Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson withstood a barrage of negative attack ads and emerged as the top vote-getter in a three-way primary. She and Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson advance to the November general election.

The Tillis win is particularly good news for Republicans, and not solely because he represents the best chance to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.

His conservative positions are not dramatically different from those of tea party darling Greg Brannon or Charlotte pastor Mark Harris, but Tillis was the establishment candidate.

After all, Karl Rove bolstered his campaign.

Two years ago, Democrats were able to take advantage of the rifts between the tea party crowd and the GOP establishment, even influencing the selection of a weaker tea party-backed candidate in a Republican U.S. Senate primary in Missouri.

Hagan and national Democrats tried to play the same game in North Carolina.

It didn’t work.

Tillis, his campaign and his Washington backers deserve some credit, making smart moves down the campaign’s stretch designed to show voters that he had momentum.

His win, though, also suggests that Republican voters are becoming more sophisticated and aware of current circumstances. Even those closely aligned to the tea party movement, or some portion of them, might be recognizing that the ability to win can trump lock-step belief.

That is not to suggest that Tillis will go on to an easy win over Hagan.

Hagan has money and ammunition that includes Tillis’ legislative record and a few ill-advised, public comments made over the course of his three years as state House speaker.

Still, he was always the best bet to unseat Hagan.

Hudson’s race, meanwhile, would be nice to interpret as a refutation of nasty attack ads.

It is more likely a lesson in idiotic political strategy hatched by Washington consultants who are better at collecting five- and six-figure donations than spending them.

In a three-person race that is ostensibly nonpartisan, the ads attacking Hudson, who is a Democrat, and those supporting her two opponents, Republicans Levinson and Jeanette Doran, drew attention to the candidates’ partisan leanings.

The ads also fired up Democratic voters.

So, in a three-candidate race with one Democrat and two Republicans and in a state where Democrats are still a plurality of voters, the Democrat got the most votes. What a shocking turn of events.

Oh, did I mention that more North Carolina voters cast ballots in an uncompetitive Democratic U.S. Senate primary than in a competitive Republican U.S. Senate primary?

Somewhere in Washington, a few consultants needed some of that Common Core applied to their math lessons.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about North Carolina government and politics.

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