Greg Brannon repeatedly challenged House Speaker Thom Tillis’ conservative credentials Tuesday while Tillis saved his punches for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the first debate of the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
The two Republicans dominated the debate with their back-and-forth as Mark Harris and Heather Grant sought to remain largely above the fray.
The debate – before a live television audience on Time Warner Cable News and more than 400 people at Davidson College – received national attention. It came two days before the start of early voting and two weeks before the May 6 primary. It was sponsored by TWCN, The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
It gave the highest profile yet to a race where no candidate has emerged as dominant and one largely defined by millions of dollars in outside super-PAC spending.
Tillis is favored by the Republican establishment, endorsed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, but polls show him short of the 40 percent necessary to avoid a July 15 runoff. The numbers suggest Brannon and Harris could be competing for second place and a runoff against Tillis.
Despite the need to differentiate themselves, the four candidates found more common ground. All oppose the Affordable Care Act. All oppose medical marijuana. All want to eliminate federal agencies. All believe Russia is the biggest foreign policy threat. And all believe climate change is not a fact.
The debate represented the first time all four leading candidates traded jousts and showcased the ideological battle within the race and the broader Republican Party. Brannon cited the Constitution at least 15 times in the first dozen questions, while Tillis advocated a “practical conservatism” that encouraged bipartisan cooperation.
Brannon used the first question on immigration to paint Tillis as weak and followed with two more attacks on Obamacare and Common Core education standards, a pattern that persisted through the hourlong debate.
“This is a distinction between Thom and I,” he said repeatedly.
An emerging issue in the race that didn’t get mentioned: the 2012 departure of two top Tillis legislative staffers after they admitted affairs with lobbyists – an issue Democrats and Republicans are using to question the speaker’s ethics. At the time Tillis said they resigned and gave them taxpayer-funded severance packages worth nearly $20,000.
Tillis, speaking to the issue after the debate for the first time since the attacks, said “their resignation was forced,” even though his campaign ad is now calling them “firings.”
Tillis tried to keep a tight focus on Hagan during and after the debate, playing down major differences between the candidates. “There may be some difference in tone and style,” he said after the debate. “But we’re all good conservatives.”
Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner criticized all the candidates, but especially Tillis.
“Tonight’s debate confirmed that Kay is the only candidate in this race who will put North Carolina families first,” Weiner said. “The Republican candidates made it clear, they all support the special interest agenda that has proven to be disastrous for middle class families under Thom Tillis’ watch in Raleigh.”
Brannon questioned Tillis’ opposition to the federal health care law, noting legislation approved in the House in 2011 to advance a state-based exchange.
“Again this is an area of distinction between Thom and me,” he said. “The state is sovereign over these issues. That’s why it’s important to know the checks and balances of our Constitution.”
“I agree with much of what Greg said, but he’s patently wrong in terms of what we did in North Carolina,” Tillis retorted.
Tillis, who called himself “the leader of a conservative revolution in Raleigh,” touted efforts by the Republican-led General Assembly to challenge the law known as Obamacare and to turn down federal money for the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program under the law.
The most terse exchange came on a question about whether convicted felons and the mentally ill should be able to own guns. Brannon said gun control is a state issue, where the federal government has no role.
Tillis suggested Brannon answered the question affirmatively and called his stance “irresponsible.”
“I understand the concepts Mr. Brannon said and his words around the Second Amendment but folks this is being practical, this is being practical conservatives,” Tillis said. “Violent felons and people with mental health problems need to be rehabilitated. You can’t put a gun in the hands of someone who represents a danger to themselves or society.”
Brannon went back to the question later to say, “I believe (at) the local-state level the sheriffs will protect the community, not the federal government.”
He said after the debate he believes North Carolina officials should prohibit both populations from owning firearms but questioned Tillis support of what he called “practical gun control.”
The candidates all favored smaller government. Each named different federal departments they want to eliminate: Tillis said the Department of Education and Mark Harris said Education, Energy and Commerce, Grant said the Environmental Protection Agency and Greg Brannon named four departments, Health and Human Services, Education, the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service.
Harris and Grant said most policies should rest with states, not the federal government. Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse, said, “Who better to know what your state needs than a state EPA and not a federal EPA?”
Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, said, “At the end of the day the role of government is simply to secure and protect the rights we have.”
Clay Furches from Davidson said he came in to the debate with an open mind. And as he left the auditorium, he remained unsure. “I was very impressed with Dr. Harris,” he said. “I was also impressed with Dr. Brannon.”
The candidates united again Wednesday for a 30-minute debate in Raleigh hosted by WRAL-TV. A third and final debate hosted by UNC-TV is Monday.
News & Observer staff writer Katie Reilly contributed.