Senate campaign takes shape early

Three Republican challengers hope to unseat Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan as outside groups begin to pour money into the race more than a year before Election Day.

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U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan
Mark Binker
FUQUAY-VARINA, N.C. — Although his speech was meant to prod donors to open their wallets for Hand of Hope, a ministry that runs pro-life pregnancy clinics, Greg Brannon's pitch could just as easily apply to his U.S. Senate campaign. 

Brannon, along with House Speaker Thom Tillis and Baptist State Convention President Mark Harris are the front-runners for the Republican nomination to take on U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat, next year. 

"If a society cannot protect life, how the heck can it save liberty," said Brannon, a tea party-affiliated Cary obstetrician and gynecologist.

More than a year after the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act – Brannon calls it "Obamacare" – he insists the federal government does not really have the power to create a health care law. Brannon warns that the law could force doctors like him to provide abortion-related services, which is something he says he would never do. 

He tells the room full for pro-life donors that, just as they see themselves protecting life in the womb, they should also be concerned with those he sees as threatened by the federal health care law. 

U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Greg Brannon, a Cary Republican

"This new health care plan is 11.5 million words of regulations, and there are parts in there that are death panels," he said.  


Harris had already shaken hands with many in the room before he got up to speak to about 50 people at a North Carolina Federation of Republican Women event at the Crabtree Valley Marriott Friday night. He was there to introduce Janet Huckabee, the wife for former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Janet Huckabee is in North Carolina to attend several fundraisers with the Charlotte minister.

Harris told the crowd how he and his wife, Beth, had met the Huckabees in New York in May. 

"We walked away that night, Beth and I just looked at each other, both of us inspired, both of us encouraged that this was a time in our lives that we were being called to step up, and step out," Harris recalled. 

Pastor Mark Harris

With limited time, Harris didn't delve into policy positions. Rather, he sold himself as a preacher who had been helping members of his congregation deal with problems and challenges for years.

"I would like to be known as somebody that you can sit down at your kitchen table with and talk through the issues of life," he said.  


Tillis was on the road Friday, making calls on his way to the funeral of Jack Hawke, a long-time Republican strategist. In the evening, he planned to make an appearance before a farm group, but the state House speaker is still spending more time organizing and fundraising than on the campaign trail.

Tillis is the establishment candidate in the Republican primary. Of the three front-runners, he's the only one with experience in elected office and the only one that Karl Rove, a political adviser who once worked for President George W. Bush, is helping to raise campaign cash. Tillis is aware this is a double-edged sword among increasingly fractious Republican primary voters, many of whom are suspicious of leaders they see as too cozy with government. 

"I go back to the fact that, eight years ago, I was a PTA president at a local public high school," said Tillis, who served as a town commissioner before running for the General Assembly.

For his first four years in the state legislature, he was in the legislative minority. "I helped lead an effort to bust up an establishment that had been running the state for more than 100 years."

Battle brews more than a year from Election Day

Other candidates will surely get into the race. Heather Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse, for example, has created a federal campaign committee. But in terms of fundraising and early media attention, Brannon, Harris and Tillis appear to the be the Republican Party's three most likely prospects to challenge Hagan.

None of them will be able to file paperwork to officially get on the North Carolina ballot until February, but in the past two weeks, third-party groups spent $2.1 million on the race. A $1.7 million ad campaign from the conservative Americans for Prosperity criticized Hagan's support for the Affordable Care Act. The Democrat's D.C.-based Senate Majority PAC spent $400,000 rebutting the AFP attack.

"The biggest driver of why there's so much attention in the fall of 2013 in a race where Election Day is still a year away has primarily to do with the national implications of this race," said Rogan Kersh, a political science professor and provost at Wake Forest University. "The U.S. Senate is hotly contested in terms of which party controls. We know it makes a huge difference who controls.... Republicans are desperate to pick up seats, and Democrats are desperate to hold on."

North Carolina, he said, is one of six to 10 U.S. Senate races in which the general election will be closely contested.

"I think we're just getting the appetizer with the Americans for Prosperity ad," said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor and acting provost at Catawba College. "Next year's flood of money is going to be the test of how much people are able to stand."

On the phone in Washington, D.C., this week, Hagan is more than aware of the intensely partisan politics that will likely define the next year of campaigning. With the U.S. House in Republican hands and the Senate controlled by a Democratic majority, gridlock has been the order of the day, leading to the 16-day partial government shutdown. 

"I was not a part of the government shutdown," she said. "I was certainly subject to it. It was terribly frustrating." 

The former state senator is part of a Congress that, by some measures, will be among the least productive in terms of number of laws passed, which is hardly a resume builder for candidates who would like to come home and tout their accomplishments to voters.

"We're still able to help a lot of constituents," Hagan said, before ticking off a list of moments when bipartisan compromise has helped push through measures she has supported.

For example, she and Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe were the prime movers behind a measure that restarted tuition benefits for members of the military. Also, she takes some credit for pushing the Veterans Administration to cut through a backlog of claims requests.

In recent weeks, though, Republicans and outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity have been hammering Hagan for her support of the Affordable Care Act. The National Republican Senate Committee and state Republican Party have both pointed to Hagan echoing President Barack Obama's pledge that all who had health insurance could keep their current policy. 
Obama has since apologized that some people with individual policies had their plans canceled. Asked about this, Hagan points out that the vast majority of people, those who have employer-sponsored policies, will keep their current plans. She adds that Congress could change the Affordable Care Act to allow those with individual policies to keep their plans, if Republicans would assent to changes that don't involve dismantling the law.

"People were told they would be able to keep their plans if they liked them, and I am co-sponsoring a bill to ensure that that happens," she said.

That bill, drafted by Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is facing a tough re-election fight herself, would allow Americans to keep policies that don't meet the "essential benefits" threshold set by the Affordable Care Act. Hagan added that people should still explore their options under the Affordable Care Act.

"In some cases, there are multiple options for them. In some cases, it might be better coverage," she said.

The North Carolina Republican Party says Hagan is "trying to "rewrite her atrocious record and deceive North Carolinians," but Hagan doesn't shy away from her votes against dismantling the health care law. National Republicans have placed robocalls hitting Hagan, and candidates, including Tillis have taken up the "broken promises" line. Tillis put out a web video this month to make that point. 

That gulf – making the law work versus scrapping it entirely – is one of the key differences between Hagan and all three of her potential challengers. 

Is it the issue or just the issue of the moment?

The Affordable Care Act has had more problem than just cancellation notices. The website that is supposed to allow people to price and sign up for policies has been plagued with problems and the subject of much derision.  

"I think the (Affordable Care Act) will continue to be an issue even if everything gets fixed simply because the Republicans will continue to use it," Bitzer said. "From a Republican point of view, that is going to be be the centerpiece of 2014 operations."

Kersh is less sure, saying that, if the bugs are ironed out early in 2014, it may lose salience. But given the amount of vitriol thrown against the program right now, he said, it makes sense for all three Republican candidates to hammer away at it. In the hunt for money and grassroots support, hating on Obamacare is a must. 

"I've rarely seen in my lifetime a a policy where, three years after enactment, it was still being debated this fiercely," Kersh said. 

All three Republican front-runners talk about getting rid of the health care law, although they talk about it differently. 

Brannon, speaking Thursday night, talks about the drain he believes the law is on the economy. But he also sees it as something amoral. 

His use of the term "death panels" echoes a line by former Alaska governor and one-time GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that was dubbed the lie of the year by Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website. Brannon, however, does not shy away from this assertion. He points to a section of the law that creates a 15-member panel tasked with controlling spending on Medicare.

"You can call it whatever you want, but it's a board of individuals who decide who gets care and who is not getting care," Brannon said. 

There are sections of the law that specifically prohibit cutting reimbursements to seniors, and changes to hospital reimbursements won't be allowed until 2020. Initially, cost savings are supposed to come by way of eliminating fraud and helping medical care become more efficient. 

Still, it's this no-prisoners language that has made Brannon a favorite among tea party adherents, including Red State founder Erick Erickson

"Leading with that as a major concern is probably not appropriate," Tillis said, choosing to focus more on the fiscal impact of the law. But he didn't discount the notion entirely.

"I can't speak for what Mr. Brannon said, but at some point, when the fiscal reality of Obamacare hits, they're going to make decisions that will put people's lives at risk," Tillis said.

Harris, too, is focused more on the economics.

"To me, the greater issue of Obamacare is what it will do to this economy," he said. But, he added, there is "genuine concern" that the 15-member panel will "take data and determine what should and should not be paid for." 

Republicans hold their fire on each other – for now

Thus far in the campaign, the Republican front-runners have not gone after one another. Given their close positions on policy issues, that almost certainly must change.

"Of course, when we get into the election in earnest in the first part of the year (2014), we'll have to sit down and build a case for why I'm best suited for the role," Tillis said. 

If and when candidates do decide to start drawing those contrasts, both Bitzer and Kersh agree that the trio of Republican front-runners fairly represent the push and pull within North Carolina's Republican Party.

Harris, the preacher, brings the Christian conservative base of the party passionate about social issues. He was a leader in the campaign for North Carolina's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Tillis, a former IT consultant, is the establishment business conservative who has caught the eye of the national party. Brannon brings the energy of the tea party, a movement that is pushing Republicans to shrink government and hold fast to principle and doctrine above political expediency.

"Three feels like about as many as a race of this magnitude can manage," Kersh said.

Hagan already has $8 million in the bank, and the Republican who wins the primary will need to raise millions if he hopes to compete with her after emerging from the primary.

As far as the cash race goes, Tillis leads the GOP pack with nearly $1 million, as of the latest campaign finance reports. About a quarter of that is his own money. Harris, who announced his candidacy less than a month before the reporting deadline, had $90,439 in the bank as of Oct. 1. Brannon reported having $105,262 after spending $161,624 since the beginning of his formal campaign efforts this summer.

Tactically, some Republicans may want to gather around a standard bearer earlier. Rove, the force behind a trio of outside spending groups, formed the Conservative Victory Project to back Republican primary candidates who would have a better shot in the general election than more ideologically rigid, less polished candidates. An executive with the Washington, D.C.-based National Republican Senatorial Committee told reporters that his organization may step into primaries, although there's been no signal that the group will do so in North Carolina. 

Even if Tillis is the beneficiary of some early outside help, Kersh points out he is closely associated with a General Assembly that has been deeply unpopular with voters. A September Elon University Poll found only 32 percent of voters said they approve of the state legislature’s job performance. That was down 3 points from the previous Elon University Poll in April.

"He's got the cloud of this assembly, this House, hanging over his head," Kersh said. 

Tillis could specifically face questions from the conservative base of the Republican Party that see many of their party's elected officials as too willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency. At least one conservative member of Tillis' own House caucus, Rep. Larry Pittman, hammered the speaker for backing away from controversial issues this summer, although he later apologized. 

Tillis acknowledged the poll numbers but said he would run on his record, saying he believed measures such as tax cuts and cutting regulations would resonate with hard-line conservatives and the more moderate general election electorate alike. 

"We have to communicate what we've done," he said.

Ask whether he would resign his state post should he win the primary, Tillis said he would not.

"I will be speaker through the end of 2014. That's a commitment that I've made," he said. "I've never considered doing anything but that."

Whatever the drag on Tillis' campaign from the legislature, it is experience that the other two leading GOP contenders don't have. 

"I think our founding fathers envisioned our legislature would be made up of folks from all walks of life," Harris said. Aside from being a citizen and more than 35 years old, the Constitution doesn't lay out any requirements. 

Plus, he said, as a preacher, he had first-hand experience with many of the problems the country is facing. That is a theme Janet Huckabee touched on when she stumped for Harris on Friday night. 

"It doesn't matter what problem that this state or country encounters, Mark (Harris) has already seen it and put a face and a name to it, having already experienced and seen that in his church," Huckabee said. "A pastor has already experienced every imaginable problem, whether it's a homeless person, an immigration problem, a veteran sleeping under a bridge, a teenage pregnancy, an elderly couple who can't pay their bills – you think of it, he's experienced it." 

Brannon, too, referred to his experience as a doctor, businessman and father of eight children when asked how someone who had never served in public office before would take on the job of being a U.S. senator. 

He also brings a seemingly unswerving self-assurance to the table. Many have read the loss of tea party conservative Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia's governor's race, along with the simultaneous win of the more centrist Chris Christie in New Jersey, as a sign the party needs to eschew its hard-line conservative candidates. Brannon takes a different lesson, saying that Cuccinelli would have won if the national GOP had stuck with him. 

"I truly believe the tea party, the conservative constitutionalists, are the conscience of our party," Brannon said. He claimed allegiance with Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. 

On Friday, Brannon found himself with some unwanted national attention. The New York Times first reported that much of Brannon's website had been lifted directly from a prior iteration of Paul's 2010 campaign website. Paul has himself been under fire for plagiarizing material.  

"A member of my staff drafted the pages of the website for my approval," Brannon said via email. "I reviewed them, agreed with every word and approved them. While I am sorry it was copied, it completely captures my views on the issues. We will revise and footnote to make the source clear."


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