Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in North Carolina is shaping up to be one of the first proxy battles of the cycle, pitting potential 2016 presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee all against each other.
Bush, the former governor of Florida and a favorite of the establishment forces within the GOP, has thrown his support behind State House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Paul, the libertarian-leaning senator from Kentucky, is campaigning on the ground Monday in North Carolina for tea party activist Greg Brannon.
And Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, is backing fellow Baptist minister Mark Harris.
Tillis – viewed as the frontrunner in the race – is hoping to avoid a later Republican runoff by reaching the 40-percent threshold in Tuesday’s primary. If he doesn’t reach 40 percent, a run-off with the second place finisher will be set for July.
Polling suggests Tillis may be able to avoid a run-off, though will be close. The Real Clear Politics average of polling on the race has Tillis at 39.5 percent, Brannon at 24 percent and Harris at 15 percent.
The winner of the GOP contest n North Carolina will go on to run against Sen. Kay Hagan, viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year. Tillis’ supporters argue he is the best candidate to take down the incumbent.
“It is critically important that Republicans win a majority in the U.S. Senate, and I am confident that the road to a majority runs through Thom Tillis in North Carolina,” Bush said in announcing his endorsement.
Paul is arguing that Brannon is the true tea party candidate in the race.
“Americans are looking for leaders who will honor their oath of office by fighting to ‘protect and defend’ the Constitution and Greg is the clear choice for conservatives in North Carolina as we work to lead our party back to the principles that made our country great,” Paul said.
Huckabee praised Harris — who spearheaded efforts to pass the North Carolina Marriage Protection Amendment in North Carolina — for his experience as a pastor.
“And as previous campaigns have shown in North Carolina, you can’t select a candidate that divides people, you must select the candidate that unites people,” Huckabee said. “Mark is the only candidate that has the lifelong experience as a public servant that has helped guide people from all walks of life through every problem you could imagine.”
Bush, Paul and Huckabee all acknowledge they are considering 2016 presidential campaigns of their own.
Tuesday’s primary race in North Carolina kicks off a month of competitive Senate primaries across the country, including contests in Nebraska, Georgia, Kentucky and Oregon in May.