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Harris joins GOP race with appeal to social conservatives

Republican Mark Harris officially joined North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race Wednesday with an appeal to social and small-government conservatives who helped him win passage of last year’s marriage amendment.

Fresh off leading a revival in Eastern North Carolina, the Charlotte pastor wrapped up a day-long tour in Charlotte after a fly-around to six cities from Wilmington to Asheville.

Harris, 47, is pastor of First Baptist Church and president of the N.C. Baptist State Convention. In his first try for public office, he hopes to turn political inexperience into an advantage.

“It will be pointed out many times in this election that I am not a career politician and that I have not held elective office,” he told crowds. “I plan to be the one pointing that out.”

Harris, who spoke to around 150 supporters at Charlotte’s Blake Hotel, is the second Mecklenburg County Republican in the race to oust Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.

Candidates in the May primary include N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, Cary physician Greg Brannon and Wilkes County nurse Heather Grant.

Tillis has support from many business and establishment Republicans. Brannon is a favorite of tea party activists.

Harris, who helped lead the 2012 fight for the constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage, hopes to appeal to social conservatives.

Wednesday, he told supporters that American “must recommit to those values which made America great – traditional values of faith and family.”

“He does fill that void in a way that a really strong social conservative seems to have been missing from this race,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“At the same time, we’re talking about somebody who has never run before and hasn’t been tested on the trail.”

Though his draft committee and campaign have yet to file finance reports, Harris said he’s already raised “over six figures.”

Tillis had raised $277,000 through June. Brannon campaign officials said he has raised $275,000, “solidifying (his) position as the foremost grassroots candidate in the race.”

Accompanying Harris on his tour were his wife, Beth, and former state party chair Robin Hayes, who is co-chairing his campaign.

Smaller government

Harris didn’t retreat from remarks he made last week that took a hard line on Washington’s current budget impasse.

Asked Wednesday about the federal shutdown, he blamed what he called “stalemating by the president and (Democratic Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid.”

Harris said he supports efforts by House Republicans to pass a series of bills that would fund portions of the government. Asked about GOP Sen. Richard Burr’s comment that the brinksmanship strategy was “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” Harris said, “I’m not running against Richard Burr. I’m not answering for Richard Burr.”

Harris also appeared to take a hard line on this month’s pending debt ceiling debate.

“Bottom line is we’ve got to make some kind of reduction in spending,’ he said. “There are some common sense things needed in government today.”

In remarks to supporters, Harris promised to push for smaller government.

“Our federal government is too large, it taxes us too much, it wastes too much of our money and has intruded too deeply into our lives,” he said.

“ And our federal government — listen to me — has no business controlling our health care.”

He called the Affordable Care Act, much of which took effect this week, “a disastrous piece of legislation.”

Criticizes Hagan

He criticized Hagan for supporting the law known as “Obamacare.” He also said she, “along with other liberal Democrats in Washington has contributed to an absolutely toxic political environment that has divided our nation.”

Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said the senator “has a strong bipartisan record of getting commonsense results ... and she will stand up to anyone - regardless of their party - when the best interests of North Carolina’s middle class families are on the line.”

Harris declined to criticize Tillis or other GOP challengers.

“You’re going to see the contrasts develop in the days and months ahead,” he told reporters in Greensboro.

Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist who isn’t working on a Senate campaign, said there will really be just one main issue for GOP voters.

“The key question for Republican primary voters is who can beat Kay Hagan, and in my mind that’s Thom Tillis,” he said. “I don’t think either Brannon or Harris have the capability or the message to defeat Hagan.”

Harris, wearing a “Jesus First” lapel pin, announced his campaign shortly after finishing a revival in rural Sampson County. He plans to continue preaching until taking a leave of absence early next year.

“This has been quite interesting for me this week, as again God is leading me to this challenge of entering the race for U.S. Senate,” he posted in a blog Wednesday.

“Once again, I find myself clinging to the few things I know in a whole new arena!”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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