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N.C. GOP stresses unity in bid to oust Kay Hagan in 2014

It was former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour who on Saturday sought to set the tone of North Carolina’s state Republican convention – and the party’s 2014 U.S. Senate race.

“You don’t win through purity,” he told delegates at a luncheon at the Charlotte Convention Center. “(Don’t) let purity and perfection get in the way of uniting.”

Unity was the theme as North Carolina Republicans gathered for the second day of their annual state convention.

Delegates elected Brunswick County businessman Claude Pope their new state chairman, as he easily turned back a challenge from tea party activist Jack Brosch of Charlotte.

Pope’s next challenge is to build on gains his party made in 2012, when voters elected a GOP governor and lieutenant governor and put Republican super-majorities in the House and Senate.

Gov. Pat McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and legislative leaders on Saturday touted their accomplishments, including state government efficiencies and a likely revamp of the tax system.

Eleven months before the primary, candidates and would-be candidates were also jockeying for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

Two announced candidates and three potential candidates worked the crowd of more than 1,200 delegates.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, who announced last month, was the only one to speak Saturday. In a speech that lasted little more than a minute, he focused on Hagan.

“How many people think we need a cheerleader for Barack Obama?” he said. “How many people (want) a Democratic, liberal progressive senator from North Carolina representing us for six more years?”

Cary physician Greg Brannon is the only other announced candidate. Convention organizers had him speak Friday, when fewer delegates were in the audience. Brannon is a favorite of many tea party supporters.

He focused on the primacy of the Constitution and talked about “buzz words like bipartisanship, crossing the aisle or compromise.”

“This is where Mr. Tillis and I are going to disagree in the primary,” he said. “We do not compromise.”

The two are among at least seven Republicans talked about as possible candidates.

Two others, former Ambassador Jim Cain of Raleigh and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden, did not attend the convention.

Two members of Congress often mentioned as possible candidates did, though neither spoke about the Senate race.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk said she’s been “urged not to say no yet” to a Senate run. But, she added, “it’s a huge mountain to climb in terms of fundraising, and I love what I’m doing.”

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn said she’s “a couple weeks away” from deciding.

“I do have a lot on my plate,” she said.

Making the rounds Saturday in a possible Senate bid was the Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Last month Harris supporters filed papers to form an exploratory committee with the Federal Election Commission.

“I’m certainly encouraged by what I’m hearing,” said Harris, who’s undertaking a “listening tour” of the state. “I’m hearing a lot of positive feedback.”

While Tillis appeals to many establishment Republicans, and Brannon to libertarian or tea party Republicans, Harris could appeal to social conservatives. He was an outspoken backer of last year’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Supporter Mary Frances Forrester of Gaston County, also a leader in the effort, called him “a new Jesse Helms.”

“Obviously, Mark has a built-in base,” Lt. Gov. Forest said when asked about his possible candidacy. “You’re going to have a tight race in the primary.”

Tillis, meanwhile, is a proven fundraiser. The Cornelius lawmaker raised $1.7 million for the 2012 election, using most of it to help elect fellow Republicans. His supporters have also organized a so-called super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts.

And Brannon could tap a national network of like-minded supporters. He said he’s already talked to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite.

Pope, the new chairman, said he’s not worried about preserving party unity.

“The party has many flavors of conservatism,” he said. “And it’s not disloyal to disagree.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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