Campaign season is officially underway for this state’s May primary. Candidates have until the end of this week to file for office. One of the most closely watched races is the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. The winner will likely face Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.
The state Speaker of the House is considered by many to be the front-runner, but now faces several challengers in a race that could split the Republican vote. Thom Tillis hasn’t appeared at any campaign debates yet, but his Republican challengers in the primary have been eager to meet prospective voters.
As the sponsors of a group called Lake Norman Conservatives opened a recent candidate forum with a country song, ob-gyn Greg Brannon, Army veteran Heather Grant, and Pastor Mark Harris sat down before an enthusiastic crowd of potential voters to answer a wide range of questions.
- Greg Brannon told them a return to the gold standard would help shore up pensions: "With a gold standard, our GDP grew an average of 4 percent a year. We get back to that, that’s being a senator, that’s finding a plan to fix the problem."
- Heather Grant advocated scrapping the EPA: "Your state should regulate your environmental protections. Because who better knows about what your state environment is than your actual state."
- Pastor Mark Harris, made it clear he doesn’t like the Affordable Care Act: "I am one of those that believes you can’t fix Obamacare, you need to repeal Obamacare."
With candidates like these attracting crowds who describe themselves as fairly far on the right, it may prove difficult for any one Republican candidate to gain a foothold.
Jennifer Duffy covers the U.S. Senate for the Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns: "I think it’s probably more problematic for Brannon and Harris, I can see them splitting more of the vote," she says. "But really, when it gets to North Carolina, the question is 'Who gets to 40 percent?' and 'Can you avoid a runoff?' If they can’t, I think that what you’re looking at is probably a runoff between Tillis and either Brannon or Harris. That gets to be a really different race."
Greg Brannon identifies himself as a Tea Party candidate and has received support from at least one major Tea Party-aligned group. Mark Harris is the former head of the state Baptist Convention and has support from evangelicals. Republican strategist Ballard Everett describes Thom Tillis as the establishment candidate. But he says even establishment candidates can be surprised, like Richard Vinroot was when he ran for governor in 1996: "Richard was far and away the candidate that was going to take away the nomination for governor and then suddenly Robin Hayes decided to jump into the race. And Robin put together an incredibly effective ground crew and put together a whale of a campaign very quickly and won that nomination."
The Race Today
Right now polls show Brannon has more support than Harris does, although last week a jury found he misled two investors in a cell phone company investment. It remains to be seen how the judgment might affect his standing with voters.
Both Brannon and Harris have made it a point to criticize Speaker of the House Thom Tillis for not showing up at candidate forums. But Tillis says he’s looking forward to facing them in person: "Once we get through the filing period we know who the serious candidates are there are going to be what I believe are a number of forums where everyone will have the opportunity to see what each of us represent and make an informed choice."
Tillis says he’s proud of having led what he calls one of the most successful free market conservative agendas of any legislature in the country. And he’s confident his campaign will get enough votes to prevent a runoff in the primary, despite tea party support for Greg Brannon: "The tea party is a diverse group of people. So the one group that may have endorsed one of my opponents is only one slice of the tea party organizations out there, which incidentally we have great relations with."
Still, a recent PPP poll suggests that so far, Tillis hasn’t gained enough support to avoid a runoff. Back at the Lake Norman Conservatives’ Forum, attendees had mixed opinions over who to support in May. Neal Howes said he leans toward Mark Harris, but he’d like to see how all the candidates fare in more forums like this one. "It’s called basically how you can communicate and how you handle yourself. I mean they’re all knowledgeable, don’t get me wrong, but I think that’s important," he says.
Whoever wins will have to turn around and mount another good campaign in the fall. The race against Kay Hagan is expected to be one of the most expensive and closely watched in the country.