Sunday, April 27, 2014 | 6:24 p.m.
DAVIDSON, N.C. — The feisty personalities and anti-establishment fervor that fed tea party challenges in recent Republican U.S. Senate primaries are largely missing this year, a troubling sign for Democrats who want the GOP to nominate candidates with limited appeal.
In North Carolina, a once-promising clash between an establishment Republican and two harder-right rivals has yet to catch fire, with the May 6 primary approaching. Longtime activists say they find little awareness, let alone excitement, among conservative voters, even though Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is a top target in November.
Asked about Democrats who say North Carolina Republicans are fighting a "civil war," former Guilford County GOP chairman Marcus Kindley said, "They wish."
The picture is similar elsewhere.
Early pledges to oust Republican senators seen as insufficiently ideological by some tea partyers fizzled in Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee. In Kentucky, tea party-backed Matt Bevin is struggling against Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
A Colorado tea partyer stepped aside to let a congressman run unimpeded for the Senate. In Georgia, the tea party has not coalesced around any of the seven GOP Senate candidates.
These contests show that the tea party's dramatic emergence in 2009 and 2010 doesn't guarantee continued success. Conservative insurgencies need the right mix of money, angry and energized voters, magnetic personalities and some degree of campaign experience among those running furthest to the right.
Insufficient conservatism is the charge leveled by anti-establishment candidates who rocked the Republican Party in the past two elections by winning Senate nominations in nearly a dozen states.
Those candidates went on to win the general elections in Utah, Kentucky and Texas. But they suffered painful defeats in Delaware, Nevada, Indiana and other states, enabling Democrats to keep control of the Senate.
With establishment Republicans saying they won't be caught napping again — and sending cash to favored candidates — insurgent campaigns are struggling.
North Carolina's Senate race fits that mold so far.
At one of last week's two televised GOP Senate debates, a tea party candidate and another from the Christian right barely made a dent in Tillis, the establishment favorite.
Running their first campaigns, they seemed unable or unwilling to paint Tillis as too accommodating to Democrats. That allowed Tillis to minimize his differences with them.
"I think we're all conservatives," he said at one point during a debate at Davidson College. No one challenged him on the point.
Greg Brannon, a Raleigh-area obstetrician and tea party favorite, took a few mild swipes at Tillis. Brannon boasted that he is backed by a pro-gun group that is "more conservative than Thom's NRA."
The remark underscored Tillis' coveted endorsement by the National Rifle Association. Protected by the NRA's approval, Tillis was the only one of the debate's four candidates to clearly oppose gun purchases by seriously mentally ill people.
Mark Harris, a Charlotte minister who championed the state's anti-gay-marriage amendment, made little news in the first two debates. Earlier, his backers winced when National Right to Life, a major anti-abortion group, endorsed Tillis.
Former Army nurse Heather Grant also is running.
Tillis hopes his GOP establishment ties will help him avoid, or at least win, a money-draining runoff. If no one exceeds 40 percent on May 6, a July 15 runoff will follow.
Tillis' Republican backers include Gov. Pat McCrory and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
Thus far, other big-name endorsers — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for Brannon and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for Harris — have generated little stir. Major anti-establishment groups such as the Club for Growth are sitting out the race.
There's still a narrow window for an anti-Tillis surge: a final debate, on state public television, was set for Monday. In theory, a modest awareness of the Republican primary fight could help Harris or Brannon if their committed followers vote in an otherwise light turnout election.
On the other hand, said Kindley, some voters think Tillis "is already the nominee."
The tepid dynamics of the GOP primary fight so far have enabled Tillis to focus mostly on Hagan and the Nov. 4 general election. Nationwide, Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate majority.
Hagan says Tillis must answer for the GOP-controlled legislature's conservative turn that slashed education spending, teacher pay raises and unemployment insurance, while also restricting access to voting and to abortions.
She notes that Tillis boasts about rejecting federal money that could have extended Medicaid coverage to many thousands of low-income residents. Tillis opposes a federal minimum wage, and says he would consider eliminating the U.S. Education Department.
In the debates, his three opponents said they would round up and deport millions of immigrants who entered the United States illegally. "They are criminals," Grant said.
Tillis hedged on the question.
In a post-debate interview he said: "We need to seal the border, we need to make it clear that there's not amnesty, and then we need to have people sit down and come up with a plan that makes sense."
Tillis says he's proud of his legislative achievements. "I led a conservative revolution in Raleigh," he says. "Liberals don't like it, but conservatives love it."