By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Establishment-minded Republicans and social conservatives alike seem to have settled on a favorite candidate to face Sen. Kay Hagan, the North Carolina Democrat who is among the most vulnerable incumbents seeking re-election.
The winner: Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, whose campaign has united often-at-odds factions of the GOP in the hopes of helping a candidate best suited to topple Hagan. It's an unusual marriage between wings of the party that could help Republicans pick up one of the six seats they need to claim the majority.
The political committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce met Thursday and decided to throw its muscle behind Tillis. A person familiar with the process said a formal endorsement would happen in the coming weeks. The person was not authorized to discuss the chamber's decision by name ahead of the announcement and insisted on anonymity.
Earlier this week, National Right to Life also backed Tillis.
"Thom Tillis has been an outspoken leader in the fight to protect innocent human life in North Carolina, and he is the only candidate with a proven record of leadership who can defeat pro-abortion Sen. Kay Hagan this fall," National Right to Life President Carol Tobias said in a statement.
Republican strategist Karl Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky both have helped Tillis raise money. Rove's political group American Crossroads is expected to run ads for Tillis, as well.
Hagan, who is being hammered on the air with millions of dollars of negative ads from the groups Americans for Prosperity and the Senate Conservatives Fund, is one of the Republicans' top targets. Hagan won her first term in 2008 with 53 percent of the vote but is considered one of the Democrats' most at-risk lawmakers.
Despite groups lining up behind Tillis, he is not assured the GOP nomination in the May 6 primary, let alone certain to capture more than 40 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.
Physician Greg Brannon enjoys the backing of FreedomWorks, the grassroots group that relishes its role in picking candidates that are not favorites of Washington's professional class. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Mike Lee of Utah also are siding with Brannon.
If he wins the GOP nomination, Tillis has much ground to make up in fundraising. Hagan's campaign said it had $8.3 million in the bank as of April 1, while Tillis' effort had just $1 million.
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