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Preview of Tuesday’s primary contests

BY Domenico Montanaro, Terence Burlij and Simone Pathe  May 5, 2014 at 8:50 AM EST
North Carolina Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, makes  calls to voters alongside phone bank volunteers  two days before the state's primary election. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

North Carolina Speaker of The House and GOP Senate candidate Thom Tillis, R-NC, makes calls to voters alongside phone bank volunteers two days before the state’s primary election. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Today in the Morning Line:

The Morning Line

  • What to watch in Tuesday’s elections
  • All eyes on N.C. Senate race
  • Tea party challenges, but establishment looks to hold strong
  • One race that represents why Republicans don’t embrace immigration reform
  • Clay Aiken in nasty primary fight
  • Remember the shutdown? Challenges to Republicans who voted to re-open the government fade
  • The Boehner challenge that wasn’t

Setting the table: The table is set for the 2014 midterms. Voters head to the polls in three states Tuesday — North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. North Carolina is where most of the action is — from the marquee Senate race to House primaries involving conservative challengers, immigration, and a former American Idol star. Indiana and Ohio mostly represent places where tea party and conservative challenges didn’t materialize — whether it was to Republicans who voted to re-open the government after the partial shutdown last year or to House Speaker John Boehner. Facing a tea party challenge, Boehner ran his first ad in four years, but the threat has mostly faded. By the way, just how much is North Carolina the central focus of not only Tuesday, but this midterm election? Check out these numbers: So far (SO FAR!), 14,870 ads have run in the Tar Heel State at a cost of $6.4 million, per an analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data by the Wesleyan Media Project. And that was just as of last week, so the numbers are already higher, And get this: 90 percent of those ads were run by outside groups. That’s more ads and more outside money than anywhere in the country.

Carolina on my mind: As we wrote Thursday, the marquee race is the Republican Senate primary in North Carolina. The favorite is Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, who is embroiled in a fight with tea party opponents. But the big question is whether Tillis surpasses the 40 percent threshold to avoid a July 15 runoff against Greg Brannon, an obstetrician and father of seven backed by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky, and Mike Lee, R-Utah. (Paul campaigns with Brannon Monday.) Why is it important for Tillis to avoid a runoff? Because if he doesn’t clear it, that would mean that the man Republicans think gives them the best chance of flipping this Senate seat would have to spend two more months bogged down trying to prove his conservative bona fides in this purple state. Establishment Republicans would rather Tillis be able to pivot to train his focus and resources on Kay Hagan, the vulnerable incumbent Democrat. Republicans need to pick up a net of six seats to win control of the U.S. Senate, and North Carolina is key to their chances.

RINO or revolutionary? Tillis’ opponents have tried to liken him to Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — Republicans tea partiers love to hate (and deride as RINOs, Republicans in Name Only). Tillis shot back at a recent debate that he has led a “conservative revolution” in North Carolina with the GOP takeover of the legislature — and its subsequent passage of controversial Voter ID and abortion laws. He cites his leadership for the state not expanding Medicaid and is also against same-sex marriage. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s Crossroads groups are both on air in support of Tillis, who has just $1 million cash on hand as compared to Hagan’s $8.6 million. Brannon is being supported by FreedomWorks, but mostly at a ground level. Polls open Tuesday at 6:30 am ET and close at 7:30 pm ET.

Wonder why Republicans don’t act on immigration? There are also a few House races to watch in North Carolina. High on the list is the second congressional district’s Republican and Democratic primaries. Want to point to a reason House Republicans struggle to do anything on immigration? Look no further. Republican Renee Ellmers is facing a primary challenge from talk-radio host Frank Roche because of her openness to ANY kind of immigration reform (even if it doesn’t include citizenship). It’s led people like conservative Ann Coulter and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie to endorse Roche. It’s a prime example of Republicans more worried about watching their right flank when it comes to immigration than a general-election challenge from a Democrat.

Which is worse — Simon Cowell or running for Congress? Meanwhile, on the other side in this district, former American Idol star Clay Aiken, who studied special education, is in a heated race with Keith Crisco, a former state commerce secretary. Check out this brutal ad Crisco is running against Aiken. “Clay Aiken says helping children with special needs is one of his top priorities. But when the president appointed Aiken to the Committee on People With Intellectual Disabilities, ‘No Show’ Clay Aiken skipped every single meeting — eight out of eight,” an announcer says, adding, “If he’s too busy for the president and special-needs children, how can we count on Clay?” This has an outside shot at becoming a potentially competitive seat, especially if Ellmers loses. Republican Mitt Romney carried this district with 57 percent in the 2012 presidential election.

Jones-ing for a fight: Can anti-war/libertarian Republican Walter Jones survive yet another challenge? This time, establishment Republicans in Washington think his time could be up. Former Bush administration official Taylor Griffin has the backing of many establishment Republicans and operatives in Washington, as well as outside groups. Republicans have long-complained that Jones isn’t conservative enough after reversing positions on the Iraq war. Now, they think they have their best chance to upend Jones after his [district was made less favorable to him in redistricting. Plus, two outside groups -- Ending Spending Fund, backed by owner of the Chicago Cubs Joe Ricketts and The Emergency Committee for Israel -- have spent $1 million either attacking Jones or supporting Griffin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Note: There are also competitive open primaries in NC-6 on the GOP side because of Rep. Howard Coble’s retirement, and in NC-12 among Democrats looking to replace former Rep. Mel Watt, who took a job in the Obama administration.

Shutdown politics faded: Another phenomenon to pay attention to -- just how much the government shutdown politics have faded. When several Republican members of Congress backed a deal to re-open the government, conservative outside groups like Heritage and the Club for Growth urged ‘no’ votes and threatened primaries. But across the country, that hasn’t materialized. Case in point: Indiana, where there are no competitive primaries. Conservative groups threatened to go after Reps. Susan Brooks and Todd Young, but no challenger emerged. And the Club for Growth had vowed to back a challenger to Rep. Larry Bucshon for what it sees as too liberal a voting record, but nothing came of that, either.

Boehner challenger fired for ad: Boehner took no chances when he saw a tea party challenge coming and ran a TV ad for the first time in four years. But the threat has all but faded. One conservative challenger, J.D. Winteregg, tried to get attention with a web video playing off a common mispronunciation of Boehner’s name, one the speaker has said he was called in high school. Unfortunately for Winteregg, the sophomoric ad, which accused Boehner of suffering from “Electile Dysfunction” and was called, “When the Moment is Right,” got him fired from a teaching job at a small Christian college. The Tea Party Leadership Fund had spent $320,000 in ads, billboards, and direct mail opposing Boehner and supporting Winteregg, the Washington Post reported. There are still two other tea party challengers -- activist Matthew Ashworth and Eric Gurr, a tech consultant. Boehner got 84 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary. Speaking of Boehner, he recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, and he’s pushing for the U.S. to have a broader engagement there. The U.S. is set to pull out in July.

Ohio governor’s race kicks off: Incumbent Republican Gov. John Kasich and Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, are expected to emerge unscathed out of the primary Tuesday. That sets up what will be one of the more closely watched governors’ races in the country. Kasich faced a backlash when he signed a law that limited the collective bargaining rights of public employees. It was later recalled. But since, he has tried to tack to the middle. He expanded Medicaid, triggering a backlash among conservatives. That’s something that could hurt him if he wins reelection and decides to run for president in 2016, something he is looking at. Polls show Kasich with a narrow lead over FitzGerald.

Quote of the day: “I’m feeling sorry, believe it or not, for the Speaker of the House, as well. These days, the House Republicans actually give John Boehner a harder time than they give me, which means orange really is the new black.” -- President Obama ribbing Boehner at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night.

LINE ITEMS

  • A new survey by the Pew Research Center and USA Today finds that voters favor the Republican candidate over the Democratic candidate 47 percent to 43 percent ahead of the November midterm election. The four-point lead for the GOP on the generic ballot question is a change from last October when the poll showed Democrats with a 49 percent to 43 percent advantage. The poll also finds diminished enthusiasm for the president on the part of Democrats. About three-in-ten say they think of their vote in the midterms as being “for” the president, compared with 47 percent in 2010.

  • Speaker Boehner announced Friday he would plan to call for a House vote to form a select committee to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of the response to the September 2012 terror attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Politico notes the challenge facing the panel, which is expected to be led by South Carolina GOP Rep. Trey Gowdy, reporting that it “will be following in the footsteps of no less than eight congressional committees in the House and Senate” that have already looked into the attacks.

  • The president’s day: Mr. Obama meets with the president of Djibouti at 10:55 am ET. Some allege that Djibouti was a country the CIA used as one of its “black sites” after 9/11. Mr. Obama also hosts a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden beginning at 5:50 pm ET.

  • Mr. Obama will tout a national climate assessment Tuesday, reflecting the higher priority he’s putting on the fight against climate change in his second term.

  • Republicans are positioned to gain even more state House and Senate majorities this year. They have full legislative control in 26 states, and with an additional three seats, they’d control five more, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Beth Reinhard.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry hinted at another potential presidential bid in 2016 on Meet the Press: “America is a place that believes in second chances. We see more character out of an individual by how do you perform after you fail and you go forward.”

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., endorsed Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential campaign on Saturday during a speech to Democratic women in South Carolina.

  • Rupert Murdoch took some time to get to know Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., this weekend as his guest at the Kentucky Derby. That Murdoch “allowed himself to be paraded for six hours around the boisterous and bourbon-drenched grounds like a prize horse behind a proud jockey,” Jason Horowitz writes in the New York Times, “amounted to a message to more establishment Republicans that, as Mr. Murdoch put it, ‘I’m very open minded.’”

  • The Democratic National Committee proposed primary dates for 2016 that would keep Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as the first four states to hold presidential nominating contests.

  • On the left, big donors are privately working on “a new big-money strategy” to support state-level candidates and boost voter turnout, Matea Gold writes in the Washington Post.

  • Panama, where a president’s wife could become vice president.

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Questions or comments? Email Domenico Montanaro at dmontanaro-at-newshour-dot-org or Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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