If T.S. Eliot was correct and April is indeed the cruellest (sic) month (poor guy must’ve owed a lot in taxes), then May is about getting down to some serious political business. To wit: Tuesday’s vote in North Carolina and the choice of a Republican to face freshman Dem. Sen. Kay Hagan this fall.
About North Carolina: in addition to being “first in flight”, in this year’s set of May primaries it’s the first of three southern states (the other two – Georgia and Kentucky – hold their primaries on May 20) that offer a window into the struggle for the GOP’s soul present and perhaps future (here’s a list of this year’s primary dates).
That struggle: it’s the idea of “establishment” vs. “Tea Party” candidates, a drama that’s played out in the last two congressional cycles to the GOP’s detriment (the intraparty feuding likely costing Republicans Senate pick-ups in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada in 2010, and Indiana and Missouri in 2012). It’s also the not-insignificant matter of the party’s guiding lights strategically and financially. And, finally, it’s about possible presidential candidates jockeying for position – their meddling in this month’s primaries a test of political clout and grassroots appeal.
One thing about the GOP’s Senate feud-fight: it’s not limited to the Deep South.
A week after North Carolina votes, Nebraska and West Virginia go to the polls. You can forget about the latter: GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Caputo is the latest installment in that state’s shift to the right. However, in Nebraska, there’s a neck-and-neck race between Tea Party favorite Ben Sasse and Shane Osborn (Sasse’s the president of Midland University; Osborn’s a former Nebraska state treasurer and was once detained by China while flying a Navy EP-3 spy plane).
The following Tuesday – May 20 – Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, North Dakota, Oregon and Pennsylvania weigh in. The state to watch (in addition to Georgia and Kentucky): Oregon, where it’s conservative Rep. Jason Conger (endorsed by Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Firearms Federation) vs. Monica Wheby, a pediatric neurosurgeon backed by the likes of Mitt Romney and the moderate New Republican super-PAC.
But before all of that, there’s the question of what North Carolina produces on Tuesday. Here are four story lines to watch:
1) Pulling Off a Run-off End Run? By any standard, Sen. Kay Hagan is an engendered incumbent. Her poll numbers have sagged, she’s struggling to explain her Obamacare vote and, unlike 2008, 2014 won’t produce a Democratic surge in her favor. So a key to her survival beyond November is protracted Republican infighting, which only occurs if none of her GOP opponents garners 40% of Tuesday’s vote. Thom Tillis, the state House Speaker and establishment favorite, is hovering around that threshold (here’s a recent poll). If he falls short, it’s a mid-July runoff with either Dr. Greg Brannon (the local Tea Party favorite) or Pastor Mark Harris (advocating a middle way between Tillis and Brannon).
2) Doing the Senate Math. A net-gain of six seats puts Republicans in charge of the U.S. Senate next January. Two picks-ups are seen as givens: South Dakota and West Virginia. The other four would come from a pool of the following: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana . . . Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia, if one’s looking through rose-tinted Republican glasses . . . and North Carolina. Keeping the latter out of Republicans’ hands obviously fortifies the Democrats’ chances of staying in the Senate majority past 2016.
3) Rove’s Night to Shine? It’s the kind of super-PAC alliance that makes liberal heads explode: David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity teaming up with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads to build up Tillis and tear down Hagan. But it’s also Rove vs. the Tea Party in that, to some North Carolina activists, he’s the embodiment of GOP establishment circles. As for Rove’s super-PAC, it had a good fundraising month in March. To the extent he has a good Tuesday night in North Carolina, it gives Rove the latest round in a war of words with Tea Partiers (chief among them: Sarah Palin) dating back to the aftermath of 2012’s Senate losses.
4) Rand vs. Jeb vs. Huck. Rove, of course, rose to national prominence with George W. Bush’s presidency. In the last push before Tuesday’s vote, it’s 43’s brother making news in North Carolina. Last Thursday, Jeb Bush endorsed Tillis. Meanwhile, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was scheduled to appear Monday at a Charlotte rally for Brannon. Not to be outdone, former Arkansas Gov. and 2008 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee endorsed Harris (both being Baptist pastors). It’s debatable whether any of these outside voices moves the needle all that much with primary voters. What is clear from the scramble for endorsements in North Carolina: the jockeying for position in the Republicans’ crowded field of 2016 hopefuls is underway.
And that will continue well beyond the May primaries.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen