Republican rivals target Tillis as primary intensifies

Posted April 22, 2014

U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon, a Cary doctor, speaks during a candidates forum in Craven County on April 19, 2014.

— Call it the "Anyone but Tillis" pledge. 

Six of the seven candidates vying against state House Speaker Thom Tillis for this year's Republican U.S. Senate nomination were wrapping up a candidates forum in Craven County on Saturday night when John Gjertsen asked them to imagine a runoff campaign. If they weren't the one matched up against Tillis, he asked, who would they support? 

"Will you pledge to support and encourage your voters to support who Karl Rove and much of the media sees as our inevitable nominee?" asked Gjertsen from the audience. "Or will you pledge to support the limited government patriot that you've been campaigning alongside of for months?"

The question drew applause from the crowd of roughly 200 voters.

The leading Republicans hoping to take on incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in November begin a series of televised debates this week – including one that will be hosted by WRAL News on Wednesday night – with Tillis as a front-runner but not a prohibitive favorite. His poll numbers do not yet indicate he will be able to pull down the 40 percent support needed to avoid a July 15 runoff primary. 

Despite gathering endorsements from national Republican leaders, fellow legislators and groups such as National Right to Life, Tillis faces those who are not only backing another candidate but suspicious of Tillis' conservative credentials. Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte is laying claim to a segment of Republicans who say they want to back someone with a stronger religious and moral bent. Meanwhile, those saying they would prefer someone with more strongly articulated small government, constitutionally-influenced ideals are turning to Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant.

Republican U.S. Senate debates

In-person early voting begins Thursday, April 24. The candidates for U.S. Senate will face a series of televised debates this week and next. The scheduled debates include the following:

Tuesday (4/22): Time Warner Cable will host a debate with Greg Brannon, Heath Grant, Mark Harris and Thom Tillis at 7 p.m.

Wednesday (4/23): WRAL News will host a debate between Brannon, Grant, Harris and Tillis at 7 p.m. WRAL-TV and WILM-TV will carry the debate live. WRAZ-Fox 50 will carry the debate at 11 p.m.

Saturday (4/26): WRAL News will record a debate Thursday night with candidates Tex Alexander, Alex Bradshaw, Edward Kryn and Jim Snyder. The debate will air 7:30 p.m. Saturday on WRAL-TV and WILM-TV.

Monday (4/28): UNC-TV will air a debate at 7 p.m. featuring Brannon, Grant, Harris and Tillis.

Senate debate graphic April 2014 US Senate debates

The debates could allow Brannon, Grant and Harris the chance to break out from the statistical scrum and emerge as the clear alternative. 

It is too simplistic to break this down as a fight between "establishment" and "anti-establishment" candidates, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"It runs deeper than that," he said. "There are people, both in the tea party and just conservative Republicans, who are naturally suspicious of people who aren't 100 percent ideologically conservative." 

Tillis has pointed to his ability to work across party lines and assemble coalitions as a strength. But what the Mecklenburg Republican calls pragmatism, some in the electorate see as a weakness. That attitude was certainly on display in the Craven County forum, where a hot topic of conversation was the use of the 10th Amendment to negate federal laws.

"You can't necessarily extend that one forum into the state as a whole," Tillis said, acknowledging that there are places in the state unreceptive to his message.

The Craven County Republican Party's executive committee voted to censure Tillis in 2013 for, among other things, interfering in local primaries. 

"This isn't me against all of them. I have tremendous amount of respect for all the candidates," Tillis said. "We don't differ that much. We can try to create these artificial differences, but it really comes down to experience."

Is experience an asset in this job interview?

"There are Republicans here in Washington, D.C., who would love Tillis to win without a runoff, but they're almost resigned to that scenario," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "Based on what we're seeing and hearing, (avoiding a runoff) is less likely. There are just too many candidates in the race."

Tillis has been fighting something of a two-front war for the past three months.

Republican U.S. Senate Candidates

Eight candidates are running for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan this fall. They include:

RED  Ted Alexander, a former mayor of Shelby.

RED  Alex Bradshaw, a researcher from Icard.

RED  Greg Brannon, a Cary doctor.

RED  Heather Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse.

RED  Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor.

RED  Edward Kryn, a retired doctor from Clayton.

RED  Jim Snyder, a lawyer from Lexington.

RED  Thom Tillis, the current state House Speaker.

On his left flank, Hagan and her allies have used Tillis' record in office against him. They have particularly taken aim at a sex scandal that forced two top Tillis staffers to resign and questions about appointments of big campaign donors to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

Skelley said those ads remind him of Democrat Claire McCaskill's 2012 run for U.S. Senate in Missouri. She aired ads decrying former Republican Congressman Todd Akin as "too conservative," an attack that actually helped the less polished Aiken win the Republican nomination. He ultimately lost the general election. 

"I don't think Tillis is wrong to say the Democrats are {{a href="blogpost-13576180"}}meddling in the primary," he said.

Those ads, he said, could play a role in keeping him from getting to 40 percent.

Tillis takes it as a badge of honor, an indication that he is the biggest threat to Hagan, that Democrats are spending money against him before the primary. 

"They've used more of the scorched-earth strategy against me because they didn't anticipate any other candidate in the primary being capable of ... winning the primary outright," Tillis said. 

Interestingly, some of the themes picked up by Democrats are being used by Harris and Brannon on the campaign stump. 

Mark Harris and Lou May"You're not going to find from Mark Harris someone who has people appointed to the UNC Board of Governors only to find out later that they're a Democrat and they live in South Carolina," Harris said in Greensboro Saturday, decrying the fact that Tillis had pointed out in an email that the appointee was a big campaign donor.

Harris was winding himself up to a crescendo that would sound familiar to anyone who has heard him preach.

"All the money in the world, honestly, can't buy character, can't but consistency and can't buy courage," Harris said, getting murmurs of assent from the crowd.

"It's unfortunate that Mr. Harris is taking that path, but he's borrowing from the Democrats' playbook," Tillis said Monday. "Him communicating that way causes him to have more in common with Harry Reid and Kay Hagan. Those are personal attacks that are from the playbook of the Democrats and not who I am." 

If there is a runoff, said Skelley, Tillis could face a tougher challenge than fending off a diffuse field. Rather than confronting voters with a wide field, albeit an ideologically similar one, a one-on-one match-up opens the door for a candidate who can build a coalition of establishment-leery voters.

"That could give you time, if you're Greg Brannon or Mark Harris, to conceivably rally anti-Tillis support," Skelley said.  

Looking for leadership

Brannon speaks with votersWearing a bright blue Mark Harris for Senate T-shirt, Darin Moser of Mount Airy was front and center for Harris' Greensboro political rally. 

"We've been involved with the tea party," Moser said, pointing out his wife, Angie, and explaining that they first heard about Harris last year. "We just want to see a Christian candidate get into office who cares about the traditional values our country was founded on."

Harris supporters say they're interest not just in having a person of faith in the Senate but someone who can be counted upon to be a rock-ribbed conservative when it comes to taxes and spending. As if to reinforce that point, one of the people who introduced Harris on Saturday was Lou May of Midway, who managed an Americans for Ronald Reagan campaign office in 1980 when a 14-year-old Harris volunteered to make calls and run errands. 

"I've worked on a lot of campaigns, but I've never met a more dedicated young man," May recalled. "Here was a young Ronald Reagan ready to hit the field." 

Outside the Craven County candidates forum, Larry Herwig of Beaufort sported a Brannon for Senate ball cap and helped pass out literature to those walking in. 

"He has honesty, integrity and faith," Herwig said of Brannon, adding that the obstetrician's command of history and the Constitution is also a selling point. To boot, Herwig added, "He's not a career politician." 

Other than Tillis, the only candidates to have served in public office are Ted Alexander, a former Shelby mayor, and Jim Snyder, who served as a state legislator for a short time in the 1970s. But neither Alexander nor Snyder has amassed poll numbers or campaign cash that make them a credible threat to derail Tillis' campaign. 

None of the Republican candidates varies widely on issues. Virtually all are conservative on social issues, saying they wish to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pledging to curb federal laws that impinge upon state rights.

Harris points to his experience as past president of the Baptist State Convention and a leader of the campaign to push through North Carolina's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, as well as his ability to relate to everyday people after more than two decades in ministry. 

Grant leans on her time in military service, pointing out that she was both a nurse and ran an office that helped soldiers with psychological issues. 

"I would have never stood in front of your five years ago," Grant said, saying it was her time in the military that gave her the confidence and the reason to get involved in politics.

"The government did not believe we should do anything more for these men and women than put them in line for the Veterans Administration," she said, pointing out that waits for care at the VA can be extensive. "That is Washington perception versus reality." 

Grant with her family"She fixes things, she did that in the military," said her husband, Michael Grant.

Heather Grant often speaks about the inability of statewide politicians to relate to everyday people who are hurt by gas prices. Michael Grant echoed that sentiment.

"We've done like most other families – we've struggled financially at some point," he said. "We've learned from it, and we're stronger for it." 

During forums, Brannon talks up his experience of being raised by a single mother, having to work before going to medical school and then building his own business. 

Like Harris, Brannon has not been shy about attacking Tillis. During the Craven County candidate forum, Brannon was the only candidate to say unequivocally that he would back any of his fellow Republicans in a second primary against Tillis.

"I give that pledge," Brannon said.

The question this week's debates may help answer is how many voters are willing to sign that same promise.


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  • 68_dodge_polara Apr 24, 2014

    Greg Brannon has my vote over Tillis.

  • Joanne Batjer Apr 24, 2014
    user avatar

    i will vote for him just because of the negative ads

  • goldenosprey Apr 24, 2014

    View quoted thread

    His legislative voting record.

  • Raleigh Rocks 1 Apr 24, 2014

    Athiestinafoxhole said.. What happened to the Republicans like Eisenhower, Roosevelt and Lincoln? They wouldn't recognize their Party today.

    And our founding fathers would see the dems as unamerican.

  • Raleigh Rocks 1 Apr 24, 2014

    Alice t said...(Thom Tillis) He has presided over a right wing take over of NC......

    Uhh hey Alice, its called winning elections, not a take over. Dems should take note. When you have crooks like Edwards, Black, Easley, arrested and all, and then bottom of the barrel Purdue, running the ship into the ground more, you don't tend to win a lot of future elections.

  • prototype Apr 24, 2014

    Those who spout "returning to the Constitution" mean that they are not going to compromise. Their goal is to shut down the government while we suffer for their misguided view of history. Many of these people believe the Founding Fathers work with Elvis at the Wallace Food Lion.

  • Raleigh Rocks 1 Apr 24, 2014

    Taxes are at historically low levels, and the budget deficit would be zero if the IRS was collected all the taxes owed.....says hardycitris

    Thats a lot of baloney.

  • Terry Watts Apr 23, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Vote Brannon! LOL!

  • Atheistinafoxhole Apr 23, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Our system was exactly designed to require compromise, but this is only possible when the participants are willing to do so. Those who refuse to compromise on ideological grounds (despite screaming for a "return" to Constitutional government) clearly don't understand how it is supposed to work. Success in our system requires some education, but more importantly it requires reasonable people.

  • hardycitrus Apr 23, 2014

    Taxes are at historically low levels, and the budget deficit would be zero if the IRS was collected all the taxes owed. But the small government conservatives demand default and global economic crash and global depression.