Raleigh, N.C. — The four front-runners in North Carolina's U.S. Senate Republican primary broke little ground and threw few punches Wednesday evening during a debate sponsored by WRAL News.
Instead, for the second televised debate in two nights, Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon, Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and state House Speaker Thom Tillis appealed to their respective constituencies going into the early-voting period, which begins Thursday.
Brannon, a tea party favorite, repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution, calling the separation of church and state a "fallacy" that "is not anywhere in our founding government." Likewise, he vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act: "There is no federal function for health care," he said.
Harris, who helped lead the successful 2012 campaign for a North Carolina constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions – the last such amendment passed in the United States – promised voters he would show "character, consistency and courage" in the Senate. "Make sure you pick a U.S. senator that will represent your values and principles," he said.
Tillis, whose campaign is backed by national Republican leaders, including former President George W. Bush adviser and strategist Karl Rove, reminded voters of his accomplishments in the state legislature, linking recent regulatory reform to a drop in the state's unemployment rate. He spent much of his allotted time attacking President Obama and incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
Grant, whose constituency is less clear-cut, reminded voters of the country's tradition of citizen legislators and said her experience as a nurse practitioner gives her insight into the complex issue of health care reform.
More alike than different
Still, the four had many more similarities than differences on policy questions from "Obamacare" to immigration reform to climate change.
All four said they would repeal the Affordable Care Act and said they would rely on more robust health savings accounts and competition within the private insurance industry to replace the coverage the law has helped provide to millions of Americans who signed up.
All four rejected the concept of a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants currently in the country. Brannon, Harris and Grant agreed the country should deport the entire group, estimated at some 12 million nationwide. Tillis said law enforcement should start with the "15 percent who are bad actors" but didn't voice support for mass deportation of the rest.
All four doubled down on assertions that climate change is not man-made, despite the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists disagree with them.
The four said the same thing in a debate Tuesday night, and their responses drew national media attention. Moderator David Crabtree gave them the chance to clarify or expand on their responses.
Tillis called it "false science," accusing liberals of "trying to use it as a Trojan horse for their energy policy – they’re trying to use it, I think, as a tool to put fear in people."
Brannon went further: "It’s a way to control carbon, and David, you and I are carbon."
Harris and Grant said the federal government shouldn't play a role in addressing the problem, whether it's man-made or not.
No clear winner
"I thought everybody sort of held their ground," William Peace University Political Science Department Chairman David McLennan told WRAL News.
"It was sort of an unusual debate in that they agreed with each other so much, and there was no attack – not even a veiled attack – on Thom Tillis," he said. "I don't think the undecided voter is going to look at this debate and make up his or her mind."
With time ticking down to election day May 6 and one televised debate remaining, McLennan predicted one of the candidates might yet decide to shake things up.
"Whether it's Grant or Brannon or Harris, they've got to differentiate themselves as the person who can face Tillis," he said. "There's going to be a risk-taker among the group. Either in the next debate or in ads or a combination of the two, someone has got to stand out. It's not just about spouting conservative ideas"