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In first primaries, Republicans gain footing for Senate showdown

May 7, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
On Tuesday, voters headed to the polls for midterm election primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio. Republican contenders backed by the Washington establishment, like Senate candidate Thom Tillis in North Carolina, and incumbents like House Speaker John Boehner, made a good showing. NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro joins Gwen Ifill to make sense of the results.

GWEN IFILL: With this midterm election season now in full swing, voters headed to the polls last night in North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. And it was a good night for candidates supported by the Republican establishment, especially in North Carolina, where the field is now set for a showdown that could determine control of the U.S. Senate.

The speaker of the North Carolina Statehouse, Thom Tillis, gave the Republican establishment reason to cheer last night.

THOM TILLIS, R, North Carolina State Representative: It’s not the end of the primary. It’s really the beginning of our primary mission, which has been the mission all along, and that is to beat Kay Hagan and to make Harry Reid irrelevant in American politics.


GWEN IFILL: Party leaders considered Tillis the strongest candidate to unseat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November and possibly help the party take over the Senate.

Their cause was helped when Tillis won 46 percent of the primary vote, more than enough to avoid a runoff with Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon and evangelical Pastor Mark Harris. Elsewhere in the state, two Republican members of Congress, Walter Jones and Renee Ellmers, turned back primary challenges. Ellmers could face former “American Idol” star Clay Aiken in November. Aiken led his Democratic primary race by fewer than 400 votes. A recount could still be possible.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R, Ohio, Speaker of the House: Good morning, everyone.

GWEN IFILL: And in Ohio, House Speaker John Boehner took nearly 70 percent of the primary vote against a Tea Party opponent.

Joining me to hash out what it all means is NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro.

So, power of incumbency last night.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, Political Editor: No question about it.

You had 36 for 36 for incumbents who won across the board last night. That’s really the establishment striking back, as we had talked about earlier. In Ohio, John Boehner survived a Tea Party challenge. David Joyce, a congressman there, also survived a Tea Party challenge.

Democrats were hoping he’d lose so they would have a chance to take over that seat. North Carolina, Walter Jones, who is always a target for some Republicans, he wound up winning his race. It was a little bit of surprise for some. And Renee Ellmers, who was a target because of her pro-immigration stance, or at least her stance to do something on immigration, she drew a challenge from the right. She wound up winning that race, but still a strong showing from the right against her.

GWEN IFILL: When you say the establishment does well, what does that mean, especially in the case of the North Carolina Senate race? Thom Tillis, how is he the establishment?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, Thom Tillis has had the backing of some high-profile Republicans, whether it’s Jeb Bush, but mostly we’re talking about the establishment structure within Washington, D.C., the people who really pour a lot of money into these races, who pick a lot of the candidates and hope that they’re going to be the ones who can be the best people to wind up beating people like Kay Hagan, who they see as very vulnerable and really key to Republican chances of taking back the Senate this fall.

GWEN IFILL: When they say — you say pour a lot of money into these races from Washington or other places, what are we talking about? Quantify it for me.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: We’re talking close to $20 million already at this point just on television ads; 20,000 ads have been poured in to this race from outside groups, 90 percent of that money by outside groups.

And that is key, because they saw what happened in 2010, they saw what happened in 2012, where they lost potentially five seats. Could have already had Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. And they don’t want the let that happen again.

GWEN IFILL: But the turnout was still low?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Of course. Turnout is always low in primaries. It’s very difficult to get people out.

That is one of the Democrats’ biggest challenges, because their pillar voters, African-Americans, Hispanics, young voters, they’re the least likely to turn up at the polls in midterms, as opposed to older, white, married voters.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about Clay Aiken. He won “American Idol.”  And, as far as I know, this is the full extent of his political background, running for this office. Very close.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, he was runner-up in “American Idol” in 2003. He wasn’t runner-up last night, although it’s very close right now, up only 369 votes.

GWEN IFILL: Running for a congressional seat.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Running for a congressional seat in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District.

And he would take on Ellmers. And that was one reason why Democrats kind of were hoping Ellmers might get taken out, because then they would see Aiken as having a little bit more of a chance. This is a right-leaning seat. Mitt Romney won it with 57 percent.

We’re probably not going to know for sure who wins in this race for probably a week or two, because the North Carolina Board of Elections says that there’s absentee ballots out still. There’s going to be canvassing Tuesday, but certainly one to watch.

GWEN IFILL: Maybe he can sing his way into the finals.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Yes, he actually vowed not to sing at all. Maybe~ that helped. I don’t know.



Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.


GWEN IFILL: I know the Democrats are on alert.