With Democrat Kay Hagan already targeted in hostile ads for supporting the federal health care overhaul, North Carolina Republicans face a choice: Do they opt for a powerful state legislator, a tea party champion or a staunch social conservative to challenge her next year?
May's GOP primary is shaping up as a race between state House Speaker Thom Tillis and at least four candidates with little or no experience in government. Tillis has led the money chase so far with help from Republican kingmaker Karl Rove. Tillis himself already has been the target of a TV ad by national Democrats — a sign they view him as Hagan's most worrisome threat.
But North Carolina's recent political history suggests the nomination is not a sure thing for Tillis.
Two leading challengers, the Rev. Mark Harris and Dr. Greg Brannon, have support among tea party and Christian conservative voters. Those blocs have proven their ability to win elections in North Carolina, where government has shifted to the right politically since 2010.
The wide margin for passage of last year's constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage also shows the political strength of conservative Christians. Harris, a Baptist minister from Charlotte, was one of the amendment's most vocal supporters.
With Brannon and Harris, "you've got two candidates in the race that appeal to big demographics in the Republican Party," said Carter Wrenn, a Republican consultant. He worked for the political organization of the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, whose own firebrand style of conservatism got him elected five times in North Carolina. Wrenn said either one — particularly Brannon — could cause trouble for Tillis if they tap into generous funding sources.
Tillis is "the perceived front runner, but he's not a prohibitive favorite for the nomination," said William Peace University political science professor David McLennan in Raleigh.
With nurse practitioner Heather Grant and radio host Bill Flynn also in the Republican race, Democrats are hoping Republicans endure a nasty, expensive primary and a July runoff should no one get at least 40 percent of the vote. Hagan, whose seat is critical for Republicans to win next November to take back the Senate, isn't expected to face a serious primary opponent and has stockpiled more than $5 million for the campaign.
"The Republican primary certainly looks like a mess right now," state Democratic Party spokesman Ben Ray said.
Harris could tap into a network of social conservatives who helped pass the-gay marriage ban referendum with 61 percent of the vote. He led the Baptist State Convention for the past two years and has received fundraising help from the wife of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
Republicans need "someone who is really not your professional politician," Harris said in a not-so-subtle reference to Tillis while being interviewed by the Tea Party Express, which posted the audio online. "The last thing we need is 'Kay Hagan-lite' versus Kay Hagan."
Brannon, an OB-GYN in Cary, has the endorsement and fundraising support of national tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Brannon said Rove's involvement accentuates his differences with Tillis.
"I think Mr. Rove helping out Mr. Tillis is the greatest thing for our campaign," Brannon said in an interview. "The Republican establishment has less Republican grassroots, and we're going to take our party back."
Tillis is a close ally of Gov. Pat McCrory, who won as a moderate in 2012. Tillis scoffs that he's labeled the establishment candidate when eight years ago he was just the PTA president at a suburban Charlotte high school.
Under Tillis' watch, the legislature has passed bills to reduce tax rates and regulations — measures he said all Republicans should support. Tillis said the 2012 marriage amendment couldn't have occurred without the House voting to put it on the statewide ballot.
"The other candidates are "talking about doing what we've been doing for the last three years," Tillis said.
But tea party adherents are not Rove fans. Some went so far as to protest outside the Carolina Panthers' stadium in Charlotte last month as Rove attended a Tillis event.
"The fact that he's got Karl Rove on his side doesn't do him any favors in the eyes of the tea party, because (Rove's) pretty much declared war on the tea party," said Jennifer Stepp with the Tea Party of Greater Gaston County. Stepp moderated a Senate candidate forum the evening of the stadium fundraiser. Tillis was invited to the forum but didn't attend.
In a recent interview before the Rove event, Tillis said he was "very proud" of being backed by Rove. He's also touted financial backing from political committees of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
Brannon, Harris and Tillis each said they're reaching out to all Republicans and to unaffiliated voters, who also can participate in the GOP primary. An Elon University Poll last month found Tillis wasn't recognized by 70 percent of the registered voters polled. At least 80 percent did not recognize Brannon or Harris.
People attending a recent Republican club meeting in Cary couldn't identify all the leading candidates by name, let alone their views. But they're unified in opposing Hagan.
"I'm looking for someone who says what he's going to do and then does it, and doesn't say one thing in a campaign and then backtracks," Joanna Migliore, 73, of Cary. "I want somebody who's honest, upfront."