Harris lags in North Carolina GOP primary poll despite endorsements, outreach efforts

House Speaker Thom Tillis leads the Republican field hoping to challenge U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat. One of his chief rivals, Pastor Mark Harris, lags in the WRAL News poll despite being one of the best funded candidates.

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Pastor Mark Harris
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Conventional wisdom among North Carolina political pundits is that the U.S. Senate Republican primary comes down to a race between front-runner Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, and his two chief rivals: Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary and Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte.
But a recent WRAL News poll conducted by Survey USA found Harris trailing less well-funded candidates Heather Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse, and former Shelby mayor Ted Alexander when likely Republican voters were asked whom they would back in May. Tillis garnered the most support of any of the eight GOP candidates, 28 percent, trailed by Brannon at 15 percent.

Grant, who has not received any high-profile endorsements and has limited campaign funds with which to work, registered 11 percent support, 5 percentage points ahead of Harris.

"It's a purely gender effect," North Carolina State University political science professor Andrew Taylor said of Grant's good showing.

Grant is the only woman in the field of eight, and while she has campaigned via the Internet and visits to grassroots groups, she has not garnered the kind of attention Harris has gotten from his endorsement by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or Brannon's backing from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

More perplexing is why Harris is lagging in this survey.

The WRAL News results regarding Harris and Grant track closely with a recent poll by Public Policy Polling, which showed Tillis with a much less impressive lead. In a February American Insights Poll, Harris placed second to Tillis and 3 percentage points ahead of Grant. The most recent poll by Republican-leaning pollster Rasmussen did not ask about Harris.

The recent poll that most fundamentally disagrees with the WRAL News results is an internal poll conducted for Harris' campaign, in which 33 percent of those surveyed said they would back Tillis in the primary, followed by 22 percent for Harris and 12 percent for Brannon. Mike Rusher, Harris' campaign manager, said the poll asked about all eight candidates, but they did not release results on anybody but the top three.

"The only people we targeted were high-propensity Republicans," Rusher said, referring to those Republican and unaffiliated voters with the most reliable histories of voting in Republican primaries according to the State Board of Elections.

The differences in how the Harris campaign poll and the WRAL News poll screened likely voters may account for some of the differences.

SurveyUSA interviewed 2,100 North Carolina adults from Monday through Wednesday. Of the adults, 1,885 were registered to vote in the state. Of the registered, 405 were determined by SurveyUSA to be likely to vote in the May GOP primary. It was those likely primary voters who were asked who they would back among the GOP candidates. The question with regard to who voters would favor in the GOP primary has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 5 percentage points. That means, for example, that Tillis' backing could be as high as 33 percent or as low as 23 percent.

Even with that potential swing, Tillis is clearly ahead.

Rusher said that the Harris campaign poll went to pains to take into account unaffiliated voters. Although black voters are a small segment of the Republican primary electorate, Rusher said those voters heavily favored Harris.

"We do feel like there will be a higher percentage of support among those African-American voters because of his support for the marriage amendment," Rusher said, referring to Harris' leading role in helping to push the 2012 referendum that added a ban on gay marriage to the state constitution.

Taylor is unsure that reasoning will hold up in the election. Unaffiliated voters do not have turnout rates in primaries as they do in General Elections.

"There are still a lot of undecided voters out there," Taylor said. "We're still six or seven weeks away from the primary."

Taylor said that it is still too soon to declare the primary a two-man race. However, he said, if the WRAL News poll numbers hold up, it could indicate a significant change among North Carolina's grassroots conservatives.

The North Carolina Republican Party that emerged in the 1970s and developed through the 1980s and 1990s was firmly rooted in social issues, such as gay marriage, prayer in public life and the like. The tea party conservatives who emerged after President Barack Obama was elected in in 2008 are much more focused on fiscal issues and what they see as the overreach of government.

"This is somewhat speculative, of course, but Brannon's message is much more of an economic one, a tea party one. Harris is much more a social one," Taylor said. "If you're looking for a test of where the sentiment is among the Republican party's populist wing ... the focus on economic issues, the libertarian issues, does seem to be beating out the traditional, Southern issues. Again, that's quite speculative, but it's a plausible takeaway."

Brannon's stronger showing, despite recent troubles such as being found liable for misleading investors by a Wake County civil court jury could reflect big boosts not only from like-minded politicians such as Paul but conservative talkers like Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, who has declared a "man crush" on Brannon.

Harris has countered with an endorsement from and scheduled fundraiser headlined by Huckabee, as well as fundraising appearances from Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council PAC.

Tillis is the only candidate with ads on any sort on broadcast or cable television, although both Harris and Brannon have strong online presences and both are poised to go on the air in the next month.

For her part, Grant has campaigned mainly through a series of personal appearances.

The primary date is May 6, although in-person early voting opens April 24. Voters must be registered by April 11 to take part in the primary.


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