This evening, four of the Republican candidates in the U.s. Senate race will square off in their first televised debate, held at Davidson College just outside Charlotte. They are:
- state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis,
- Baptist Pastor Mark Harris
- Tea Party-backed obstetrician, Greg Brannon
- Army veteran Heather Grant.
The crowded field in this race could make for a complicated election.
Now that primary election day is just two weeks away, several of the candidates vying to face the Democratic incumbent, Senator Kay Hagan, are reaching out to voters with TV ads like these:
"She refuses to clean up his mess, so you and I have to clean up hers," says Thom Tillis in one ad, while another for Greg Brannon touts the ob-gyn as a "tea party leader who cherishes the intent of the founders." Meanwhile, an ad for Mark Harris has the Baptist pastor looking into the camera, saying, "I’m conservative, a Christian, a husband, and father."
Mark Harris’s campaign manager, Mike Rusher, says this is a crucial time for all the candidates. His office has just spent an additional $100,000 to buy TV spots on the state’s major networks.
"Now is the time where the rubber meets the road and everybody’s going a hundred miles an hour and up to this point it’s only proven to us that the more people that hear it the more people will support us," says Rusher.
Whoever voters end up deciding to support, it’s clear that the candidates in the Republican primary know they have to work especially hard to get voters’ attention in this race.
"This is an old-fashioned name ID election. It’s who becomes known and who gets the message to voters," says Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist in Raleigh.
He says while the state Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, is the front runner, that status doesn’t translate into an overpowering advantage:
"This is a race between 3 candidates who started out unknown. Tillis had a little name ID but not much, the others had none at all. And the bigger story in the election is who’s able to communicate with voters and tell ‘em where they stand and tell ‘em why voters should support ‘em."
A recent poll by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling puts Tillis in the lead, but at only 18 percent. Greg Brannon is not far behind at 15 percent. In order to win a primary election, candidates here must receive 40 percent of the vote in partisan primaries in order to avoid a runoff.
Georgetown University economist Laurent Bouton studies electoral systems and voter behavior. He says this will be an interesting race to watch. "What my research suggests is that the possibility of a runoff will probably affect the behavior of voters in the primary," says Bouton.
Bouton says no one can predict exactly what will happen, but in similar situations people have been known to split their vote among two strong candidates, which then paves the way for a third one to move ahead. Bouton says that’s what happened in 2006 in the Nicaraguan presidential election, which- like North Carolina’s partisan primaries- also requires the winner to get 40 percent of the vote or face a runoff. Daniel Ortega won outright, even though polls before the election showed he was the least preferred candidate of the electorate. Bouton says "This incentive to divide votes in this type of election is actually stronger than in other systems."
But voters still have some time to decide who they’ll support in the Republican primary for the U-S Senate. Tonight’s debate will air on Time Warner Cable at 7 o’clock. Another will air tomorrow evening on WRAL, and next week UNC-TV will host the third and final candidate forum.