The sanctuary of the small Baptist church was a comfortable setting for Mark Harris, who even slipped into the rhythmic cadences of a preacher as he spoke about his life, his values and his U.S. Senate campaign.
He made at least one convert. Only about 20 people were scattered in the pews at Acorn Ridge Baptist this week to hear the Charlotte Republican.
Monday’s appearance in this small Moore County town underscored the challenges for Harris who, less than eight weeks before the May 6 primary, continues to struggle for traction in a crowded field.
Recent polls show him stuck in single digits. According to one survey, 3 out of 4 primary voters don’t know enough about him to have an opinion.
But the same polls show recognition is elusive for each of the eight candidates. Even House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius is unknown to almost half of primary voters.
“Mark Harris has not established much of a statewide following, but neither has anybody else,” says John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation.
Through December, Tillis raised nearly four times as much money as his closest rival, enough to allow early TV ads. No other candidate has been on the air, the best way to reach voters in the nation’s 10th largest state.
“If you’re going to run for state office and you’re unknown, the first hurdle … is telling people who you are and what you believe,” says GOP consultant Carter Wrenn. “You’ve got to raise the money to get on radio and television. It just doesn’t fall out of heaven.”
Harris, 47, touts recent successes. He won a straw poll this month at the Nash County Republican convention, his third such victory. He also picked up the endorsements of three state lawmakers, including Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson.
“He’s not from my part of the state, so it’s taken a while for people to get to know who he is,” says Newton. “Now that they’re starting to know who he is, they’re definitely starting to move in this direction.”
Harris is confident that more will move.
“We get the message out through our grassroots movement,” he says.
At Acorn Ridge Baptist, Harris was returning to familiar ground and a natural constituency.
A former president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, he has a statewide network that in 2012 helped pass the amendment that enshrined traditional marriage in the constitution.
Harris continues to preach in churches around the state, once on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays. Last week he spoke at Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem.
“Mark Harris is a breath of fresh air because he recognizes our Judeo-Christian values,” says pastor Ron Baity, who heads an activist group called Return America. “We need people of Biblical convictions. … If all the Christians in North Carolina voted for him, it wouldn’t even be a contest.”
Like his GOP rivals, Harris is a fierce critic of President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act and strong proponent of national defense. Invoking the legacy of Ronald Reagan, he also talks about values.
“I will never ever stop talking about traditional values,” he said in Robbins. “Those traditional values like faith and family, they are what makes America work. … They’re at the core of who I am.”
That pleased Barbara Pond, a 67-year-old conservative from Raeford, who applauded the candidate in Robbins.
“I personally like what I hear,” she told Harris, “and I’m ready to go to work.”
Role model: Ted Cruz
Harris has skeptics. Among them were three leaders of the Moore County tea party who came to Robbins to hear him.
They questioned his support from Republicans they perceive as moderate, including former state GOP chairman Robin Hayes of Concord, who chairs the Harris campaign. One asked him who he would model himself after in Washington.
Ted Cruz, Harris replied without hesitation, referring to the Texas senator and tea party favorite.
Miriam Chu, chair of the Moore TEA Citizens, said later that while Harris “seems like a really good man,” she questions his electability.
“He’s obviously got to appeal to a greater group than just evangelicals,” she said. “He’s really got to show people he’s not a theocrat.”
Harris doesn’t buy the conventional wisdom that he’ll win social conservatives while Tillis captures business Republicans and Greg Brannon, a Cary physician, wins tea party conservatives.
“I totally reject that assessment,” Harris said. “I absolutely refuse to concede the business community and (the tea party.) … I truly believe I’m the bridge candidate in this race.”
With eight candidates, many analysts say it will be hard for any candidate to get the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Hood says most Republicans have yet to focus on the primary.
“Republican primary voters are motivated by defeating (Democratic Sen. Kay) Hagan,” he says. “They’re thinking mostly about the adversary in November.”