By Wade Rawlins
RALEIGH, N.C., July 17 (Reuters) - Republicans hoping to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and turn back Democratic efforts to regain ground are looking to several competitive congressional races with primary run-off contests in North Carolina on Tuesday.
Republicans aim to pick up the state's 8th Congressional District, a former textile area east of Charlotte, by unseating two-term Democratic incumbent Larry Kissell, who is considered vulnerable due to redistricting.
Republicans hold 241 seats to the Democrats' 191 in the U.S. House Of Representatives, where members serve two-year terms. Democrats control the U.S. Senate by a narrower margin.
The 8th Congressional District nomination race featuring Richard Hudson, a former congressional aide to several Republican members of Congress, and Scott Keadle, a dentist and former county commissioner with some Tea Party support, has attracted national interest.
Advocacy groups known as Super PACs have been pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into radio and television ads seeking to influence the outcome.
"It is a battle within the Republican Party," said J. Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. "It is basically the establishment Republicans versus the Tea Party faction. I literally think it's anybody's ball game."
The Young Guns Action Fund, a Super PAC aligned with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, reported this month that it was spending about $450,000 on mailings, radio and television ads backing Hudson. The American Action Network reported spending $312,000 in July on ads opposing his competitor.
Hudson, who was the top vote-getter among five Republicans in the May 8 primary, has picked up endorsements from former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, former North Carolina Governor Jim Martin and other prominent state Republicans.
Keadle, a maverick Republican, has also benefited from outside support. He received an endorsement from the conservative Club for Growth, a Super PAC that backs limited government and low taxes. The group has spent nearly $461,000 on ads backing Keadle and an additional $199,000 on ads opposing Hudson for not being conservative enough.
Tuesday's winner will face Kissell, whom Bitzer described as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country as a result of redistricting, in the Nov. 6 general election.
CANDIDATES FIGHT FOR OPEN SEATS
Republicans are also hoping to pick up the open 11th Congressional District seat in western North Carolina. U.S. Representative Heath Shuler, a Democrat, opted to retire rather than defend the redrawn district representing the Asheville area.
Republicans Mark Meadows and Vance Patterson are vying for the nomination in a runoff. Meadows led a field of eight Republican candidates in the May primary, collecting 37 percent of the vote, while Patterson received 23 percent.
Meadows, a self-described conservative Christian businessman, also received an endorsement from Santorum. Patterson, a business entrepreneur who has started 16 companies, has pledged to donate his entire congressional salary to non-profit organizations in the district.
The Republican nominee will square off against Democrat Hayden Rogers, who served as Shuler's chief of staff, in November.
The retirement of longtime Republican U.S. Representative Sue Myrick created a scramble among party members hoping to retain the 9th Congressional District seat in the solidly Republican Charlotte area.
Jim Pendergraph, a former county commissioner and sheriff, and Robert Pittenger, a former state senator and wealthy real estate investor, emerged from a crowded primary field of 11 Republican candidates to face each other in Tuesday's runoff.
Pittenger has spent more than $2.2 million on his campaign, including $1.9 million of his own money, giving his campaign a financial advantage, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Pendergraph has spent $346,000 and recently began airing radio ads featuring an endorsement from Myrick, who described him as "a seasoned honorable cop" and a Reagan conservative.
The winner will face Democrat Jennifer Roberts and Libertarian candidate Curtis Campbell in the general election. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Mohammad Zargham)
North Carolina Republican Primary Sets Up Expensive Inter-Party Battle