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John Rhodes levels charges at Thom Tillis in US Senate race

The attacks against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis continued Friday when the GOP lawmaker he defeated in 2006 accused him of “bullying and intimidation” and pledged to file ethics complaints against him.

Former Republican Rep. John Rhodes plans to seek state probes of whether Tillis’s support of campaign donors to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors violated ethics rules.

His broadside capped a week-long flurry of attacks on Tillis. Rival Greg Brannon called him “unelectable.” Challenger Mark Harris raised “character” questions. And, citing news reports, critics questioned whether he exaggerated his college credentials.

“We are definitely getting into the homestretch and this is what I think everybody has been waiting for,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “We’ve got the mud and we’ve got the gloves off.”

A new poll Friday for WRAL-TV showed Tillis 13 points ahead of his closest competitor in the eight-candidate field, with support from 28 percent of Republican primary voters. A candidate needs 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan told The Associated Press that next week her campaign will underscore the link between Tillis and the Koch brothers, the wealthy businessmen who fund Americans for Prosperity.

Americans for Prosperity has spent millions on TV ads critical of Hagan and the health care law known as Obamacare. Hagan also told the AP that she would welcome President Barack Obama to campaign with her.

Hagan’s is one of a handful of races that could determine control of the Senate. This week analyst Charlie Cook moved the race from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up.”

Underscoring the widespread interest in the GOP primary, campaign “trackers” outnumbered reporters at Rhodes’ news conference. They included videographers from liberal and conservative super PACS as well as the Democratic Party.

Rhodes was a maverick lawmaker from north Mecklenburg County and one of the first who leveled charges of corruption at Democratic House Speaker Jim Black. Black eventually went to prison.

Along with the election by lawmakers of campaign donors to the UNC board, Rhodes’ recalled that Tillis paid severance pay to two aides who resigned after sex scandals. He alleged what he called bullying behavior, including a paintball incident years ago in Cornelius.

Hoisting a canister of green paintballs, Rhodes described an area farmer’s 2005 complaint that Tillis shot his barn with paintballs. Rhodes included a letter the man sent Tillis, along with a $200 clean-up bill.

Responding to the farmer in a letter, Tillis acknowledged being a regular paint-baller but denied having shot at the man’s barn.

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw called Rhodes’ charges “sour grapes.”

“The debate between Thom Tillis and John Rhodes was decided 8 years ago by a 2-1 margin of voters in that district in favor of Thom Tillis,” Shaw said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that Mr. Rhodes would rather talk about sour grapes than uniting together to beat (Democratic U.S. Sen.) Kay Hagan.”

Rhodes urged Tillis to drop out of the Senate race and resign as speaker. He asked voters to set up a toll-free hotline called, “Thom Tillis Stop Bullying North Carolina Citizens Hotline.”

Gary Robertson of the Associated Press contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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