Clemmons, N.C. — Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte told a group of supporters Thursday he will enter the Republican primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014.
Harris made the announcement to a group of about 200 supporters meeting in Clemmons. His political adviser Tom Perdue said the crowd was much larger than expected. He said Harris will officially declare his candidacy Oct. 2.
Harris is senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Charlotte. He has not held public office before but was one of the founding members and most vocal supporters of Vote for Marriage NC, the campaign supporting the state's constitutional ban on same-sex unions.
His campaign will be co-chaired by former congressman and state GOP chairman Robin Hayes and Mary Frances Forrester, widow of late state Sen. Jim Forrester, R-Gaston, another leading voice against same-sex unions in her own right.
"There are a lot of people in North Carolina that are looking for something – someone – different," Perdue said.
Harris will face current House Speaker Thom Tillis and physician Greg Brannon of Cary, both of whom have already declared their candidacy for the GOP Senate primary. The winner will challenge incumbent Democrat Hagan in November 2014.
"There’s a definite opening for a true conservative – not a Kay Hagan light, a true conservative," Perdue said. "He won’t be someone who’s got to spend campaign money to market himself as something he’s not or convince people he didn’t mean something he said four years ago. Mark is Mark."
Perdue said Harris has held 117 meetings around the state on a listening tour since his supporters began a "Draft Mark Harris for U.S. Senate" campaign in May. He said the campaign's mailing list is now more than 22,000 and growing quickly.
"He’s been told by enough people that they would like to vote for somebody for one time that does not surprise them after they’re elected,” Perdue said. "He is a social and a fiscal conservative, and he certainly won’t surprise anybody. He believes there is a pathway for someone like him to win."
Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the Republican leader of the state Senate, is another potential candidate for the primary. He's expected to announce his decision on the race next week.
"I’ve always said about primaries, 'The more, the merrier,'" Perdue said.
Meanwhile, Brannon has already won support from Tea Party Republicans and conservative pundit Erick Erickson, who told a RedState gathering last month, "I would rather vote for the pile of brown goo on the side of the road in New Orleans than vote for [Tillis] as a Republican. He's terrible."