By Colleen Jenkins
DAVIDSON, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis says national Democrats have spent millions attacking him because they are worried he will win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the state's primary election on May 6 and take the seat in November.
"They fear our campaign the most," he said.
Tillis, 53, leads a crowded field of eight Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, 60, who faces her first re-election test in a polarized state that took a more conservative turn after she defeated Elizabeth Dole in 2008 and Barack Obama won North Carolina on the road to the White House.
Republicans controlled both the governor's office and the legislature last year for the first time in more than a century. With the aim of creating a more efficient government and fair elections, they enacted broad voting restrictions, curtailed unemployment benefits, cut taxes and refused to expand Medicaid, prompting lawsuits and weekly protests by thousands of people in the state capital.
Now, due in part to her support for President Obama's signature healthcare law, Republican congressional leaders consider Hagan vulnerable. They aim to pick up her seat and several others across the country to regain control in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats currently have a 53-45 majority. There are two Independent senators.
While Tillis boasts that he helped lead the state's "conservative revolution," he is not the clear favorite among voters, and it remains to be seen whether he can muster enough support to avoid a runoff.
"There's this sense that he's the front-runner, but there's also this sense that he's not moved as far right as a lot of the Republican loyalists would like him to move," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nipping at Tillis' heels are several first-time political candidates with support from across the national Republican party.
U.S. senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have backed Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon, an obstetrician who makes frequent references to the Constitution. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has expressed support for Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor who helped convince North Carolina voters to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2012.
At their first televised debate, held this week at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, the Republican slate differed in style but showed little distinction in platform.
Joined by a fourth candidate, nurse practitioner Heather Grant, all were opposed to increasing the federal minimum wage and legalizing medical marijuana. They disputed climate change and named federal agencies that they would eliminate.
They took repeated aim at Obamacare, arguing that the law still deeply unpopular among conservatives should be scrapped, sounding the Republican "repeal and replace" slogan.
"I believe I'm going to be the 51st senator in a majority that's going to repeal this bill," Tillis said.
REPUBLICAN VOTERS DIVIDED
Tillis has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life anti-abortion group. Yet some Republican primary voters remain unconvinced he will stand firm on their principles.
"He's cliche. He's supported by the establishment," said Carol Cheslock, 62, a Brannon supporter.
Hagan, the target of ads from groups backed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and Republican strategist Karl Rove, debuted a radio spot this month slamming Tillis for giving nearly $20,000 in taxpayer-funded severance packages to two legislative staffers who were forced to resign after admitting affairs with lobbyists.
Her campaign says he also has sent mixed messages about Obamacare, calling for its repeal while referring to it in an interview as a "great idea that can't be paid for."
Tillis says Democrats are "meddling" in the Republican primary, but Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said: "That ad comes after $11 million in spending directed at defeating Kay, and it is simply an effort to set the record straight on how Tillis is trying to have it both ways."
Polls show Tillis falling short of the 40 percent of the vote needed to secure his party's nomination outright. Democrats delight at the idea of a protracted intra-party contest that would strain Republicans' financial resources.
Tillis has raised $3.1 million compared with Hagan's $12.7 million war chest as of March 31, according to campaign finance reports, which also show the Democrat with about six times more cash on hand than her potential Republican challenger.
Republican strategist Brian Nick predicts Tillis will pull away from his primary opponents, win the nomination and put up a strong challenge to Hagan.
"This has national race written all over it," said Nick, Dole's former chief of staff. "Both sides are going to say a lot about each other's records, but it's really going to be about the national climate and a referendum on Obamacare."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)