One week before the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the differences between the candidates appear subtle.
Two televised debates did little to separate them on major policy issues. All oppose a minimum wage hike, Common Core education standards and legal status for immigrants who arrive illegally. All support a tougher foreign policy, a repeal of the federal health care law and a reduction in the size of government.
But a deeper look reveals fundamental differences among the candidates in approach and how they would address major policies, differences that offer voters a choice ahead of the May 6 vote.
The contrasts also hold broad implications for how the candidates, if they defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, would position themselves in a Washington increasingly polarized by ideology within the political parties as well as between them.
Thom Tillis, the state House speaker endorsed by top Republican leaders in Washington, describes himself as a “practical conservative,” matching at times his more ardent rivals in his positions even while he takes more nuanced stances and talks about working with Democrats.
Greg Brannon, a tea party favorite backed by Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, communicates in more ideological terms, using firebrand language at times, citing strict adherence to the Constitution, and arguing that the federal government should have no role in education, gun control or wage standards.
Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor, emphasizes a personal approach, touching the issues in broad strokes as he touts his character and values as what differentiates him from his rivals.
Heather Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse, fits a tea party mold but is struggling to keep pace with her better-funded and more organized rivals.
The final statewide debate Monday on UNC-TV is sure to emphasize these contrasts.
“I think the differences are mainly stylistic, not philosophical,” said John Hood, an analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh.
When it comes to ideology, Catawba College political expert Michael Bitzer put them on a scale, saying the first debate “certainly did show some daylight between them.”
“If you think of it in a linear way, from center to right to far right,” he continued, “I think certainly Grant and more importantly Brannon would be the furthest over (to the right), then Harris coming back a little bit to the center, and Tillis is effectively straddling the need to be very conservative but with a pragmatic realization.”
The stylistic divide, in terms of persona and how they would tackle the job, became apparent during the debates, said Republican strategist Larry Shaheen from Charlotte.
Tillis “comes across as the most practical and pragmatic and intelligent conservative,” he said. “Greg Brannon is the hammer. He is the guy who is going to come up (to Washington) and be in your face.
“Mark Harris is the preacher. He is going to be the voice of conscience in the room. He came across in a very professorial approach, he seemed very above the fray.”
Grant, he said, “came across (in the debates) as very matter-of-fact.”
No to Common Core
To hear Tillis tell it, no major differences exist between the GOP candidates. It’s a theme he often repeats to emphasize experience as the determining factor in the race, pointing to his accomplishments in the General Assembly since Republicans took control in 2011.
“We’re not engaging in these debates in order to pick fights or have arguments with fellow Republicans,” said Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ campaign manager and spokesman. “He is a conservative with a proven track record.”
In the debates, Tillis hit partisan notes in describing his positions, whether disputing climate change, opposing Common Core national education standards or advocating for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The Huntersville lawmaker took a new stance in Tuesday’s debate, saying he supported the repeal of Common Core – criticized by some conservatives for its one-size-fits-all approach – and would consider eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.
Under Tillis’ leadership, the state House approved Senate Bill 479 in 2011 directing the state to participate in Common Core. It passed the House with one dissenting lawmaker; Tillis didn’t cast a vote, as is traditional for a House speaker.
His spokesman said Friday that he “has always had serious concerns about Common Core” and appointed a committee to study it. The panel recommended last week that North Carolina replace Common Core with state standards.
Still, Tillis advocated for “national education standards” in the debate without defining what he meant. His campaign also softened his statement about possibly getting rid of the federal Education Department, saying later that he supported a “significant retooling.”
Likewise for his answer from the first debate disputing climate change, he sought to expand on it a day later saying “of course the climate changes.” The question, he said, is whether the government should do anything to address it.
On the Affordable Care Act, Tillis couches his “repeal” stance. He supports replacing it with other measures and has expressed tentative support for a Republican proposal drafted by a trio of U.S. senators, including North Carolina’s Richard Burr.
The delicate answers, political observers say, are a reflection of his experience governing. “He’s so ... solutions-oriented,” Shaheen said.
Brannon comes across as an absolutist. He accuses the Federal Reserve of “treason” and has suggested President Barack Obama is a dictator. He believes the nation is currently experiencing a “constitutional crisis” and supports states’ ability to nullify federal laws.
“I would contend there is a pretty big contrast against Thom Tillis,” said Brannon campaign manager Reilly O’Neal, reflecting the candidate’s attacks in the first debate. “I don’t think it’s just style. It’s the role of government.”
Brannon disputes the constitutionality of the federal health care law, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the measure, saying the federal government has no role in health care because it’s not part of the powers listed in the Constitution. He touts himself as the next Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Utah Sen. Mike Lee, all tea party lawmakers in the Senate. He is the lone candidate not to support term limits.
“I actually read Obamacare. And I got done reading after five months, and it’s not in Article 1, Section 8,” he said, citing the portion of the Constitution that delegates powers to Congress. “And it infuriated me. It attacks every fiber of our life, our liberty and our pursuit of happiness.”
Brannon also supports a return to the gold standard, tying the dollar more directly to gold reserves and limiting the printing of money. The Cary obstetrician said his top priority is mandating that life begins at conception and outlawing abortions. And he opposes all federal regulation of firearms, saying that is a state responsibility.
“When you hear him speak, his knowledge of the Constitution is really succinct and on cue,” said Mark Hager, the state coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, a national coalition, who lives near Statesville.
Values more than issues
Two other candidates are appealing to Republicans who identify with the tea party movement.
In the debates, Grant took the hardest line in her language on immigration, labeling those who entered the country illegally “criminals” and saying they should be sent “back home.”
Separating herself from the others again, Grant blasted the Environmental Protection Agency as a job-killer and declared support for the repeal of federal income and payroll taxes in exchange for a 23 percent sales tax under the “Fair Tax” plan.
Harris aligned with other candidates on major policies, such as the health care law, foreign policy threats and Common Core, but he talks about them differently. On the subject of recent mass killings, Harris argued that exposure to violence through video games and a breakdown in the family were issues that needed to be adddressed.
He also is putting character at the front of the race.
Harris stands apart because “he believes in what he is saying,” said Mike Rusher, his spokesman, an aside critical of the candidate’s challengers. As part of mentioning character, Harris is taking a shot at a sex scandal in Tillis’ legislative office and a $500,000 civil judgment against Brannon.
“It really does come down to character, consistency and courage,” Harris said at the end of the second debate. “... As important as all these issues are that we are talking about, the reality is that there are a lot of issues that we can’t begin to predict that we will face. Make sure you choose a U.S. senator that will represent your values and principles.”