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GOP Senate candidates vie for Charlotte-area early voters

Their U.S. Senate primary races winding down, two leading Republican candidates converged on a south Charlotte library Saturday, one hoping to force a runoff and the other hoping to avoid one.

Thom Tillis and Mark Harris stood far apart as they joined a gauntlet of sign-waving candidates and volunteers greeting the last of the early voters at South Regional library.

Along with Cary physician Greg Brannon, the two are considered the top candidates in a primary that could help decide control of the U.S. Senate.

“North Carolina may well be the seat that determines the (Senate) majority,” Tillis told reporters Saturday.

Early voting ended Saturday afternoon. While final figures were unavailable, statewide turnout was running slightly ahead of early voting in 2010, the last nonpresidential primary. In 2010 turnout for the statewide primary was about 14 percent.

In the Senate race, eight Republicans are competing to take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is heavily favored in her own primary.

GOP candidates will spend a lot of time in and around Mecklenburg County through Tuesday.

Harris, a Charlotte pastor, spent the morning at South Regional library before heading to Catawba County.

Tillis, the state House speaker from Huntersville, visited Iredell County before heading to Charlotte. Brannon, who campaigned in the Triangle, holds a Charlotte rally Monday with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, like Brannon a tea party favorite.

The race is the next test of Republican strength heading into the fall. In 2012, tea party-backed conservatives upset establishment Republicans in primaries, only to go on to lose to Democrats in states such as Missouri and Indiana.

Aiming for 40 percent

In North Carolina, Tillis won the early support of his party’s establishment including House and Senate GOP leaders and Karl Rove, former adviser to George W. Bush, and last week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Though polls have shown him above the 40 percent needed to win outright on Tuesday, Tillis was cautious about predicting victory.

“It’s going to come down to Election Day,” he said. “Even if we don’t get to 40 percent, we’ll continue to make this race against Kay Hagan. Kay Hagan is my opponent.”

Polls suggest the best chance for Harris and Brannon could lie in a July 15 runoff. With a low turnout, each could galvanize a base of dedicated voters.

While saying he’s focused on winning 40 percent Tuesday, Harris acknowledged that with eight candidates, that could be hard to do.

“Everybody’s got to be getting a piece of the pie,” he said, “which makes it very difficult for anyone to get to 40 percent.”

Harris, who has generally avoided criticizing his rivals, referred to Tillis as “Hagan Lite.” And he questioned Paul’s judgment in stumping for Brannon, ordered in March to pay a $450,000 judgment after a Wake County jury found him guilty of misleading two investors in his failed startup.

“I just find it interesting that Rand Paul would come down the day before the election and hitch his wagon to that,” Harris told reporters. “Maybe he doesn’t know.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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