For months, Republican Thom Tillis’ Senate campaign touted his accomplishments and focused his attacks on Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan, acting like a frontrunner with his eye on November.
Now, in the final days before the May 6 primary, Tillis is changing his strategy. Last week, he mailed a flier to voters that attacked his top GOP rival for not paying his property taxes on time. He also debuted a TV ad that trumpets his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Tillis hit the social conservative issues Saturday in his speech at the 2nd Congressional District GOP convention in Sanford. “We need a Congress that understands the sanctity of life, the sanctity of traditional values, the sanctity of traditional marriage,” he said.
The shift in approach is an uneasy transition for the House speaker, who is not a loud voice on social conservative issues compared to Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and tea party candidate who wants to outlaw abortion, and Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who helped lead the 2012 campaign to ban gay marriage.
Instead, Tillis has preferred to talk about the economy, whether promoting his record of tax cuts or eliminating regulations.
The change comes as Tillis, who is leading in polls and fundraising, tries to pull away from Brannon and reach the 40 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination outright. Republican strategists say a July 15 runoff would cripple the nominee’s chances in November, though a rightward shift too far may hurt him as well.
“He’s touching base with all segments in the Republican primary to get past 40 percent,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist who called the move smart.
In an interview after his speech, Tillis disputed that his campaign has moved its strategy in a conservative direction, saying “those are just part of the tactics of running a good, well-rounded campaign.”
Brannon, who also attended the event, used his three-minute remarks to emphasize his dedication to Constitutional conservatism and won loud cheers from the tea party supporters in the crowd. The two men exchanged a terse greeting in the hallway outside the meeting room before parting.
Republican leaders at the GOP convention encouraged the Senate candidates to avoid attacking each other, saying it only plays into Democrats’ hands.
“He doesn’t need to really go there,” said Richard Crowe, a Tillis supporter and Republican convention delegate, referring to the attacks and new TV ad. “He can throw down a gauntlet but he doesn’t need it.”
The mailer – sent to an undisclosed number of voters – claims Brannon didn’t pay his home’s 2013 property taxes on time. “Brannon has failed to pay his own taxes,” it reads, next to a darkened image of the candidate. “How can he be a voice for North Carolina taxpayers?”
The reverse side touts Tillis as a “tax reformer” and says he’s the “only candidate with a proven record of lowering taxes,” a reference to 2013 efforts to cut income taxes in the General Assembly.
Brannon’s camp called the claim misleading because it suggests he didn’t pay his $8,779 tax bill. Brannon did, albeit a month after the grace period ended and only after a reporter asked about his late bill.
Tillis also paid the $9,639 tax bill on his Huntersville home after the Sept. 1 due date but within the grace period before interest began to accrue.
Asked about the mailer Saturday, Brannon didn’t want to comment, except to say Tillis “was late too.”
New emphasis ‘desperate’
In a statement, Brannon campaign manager Reilly O’Neal said it was “typical of career politicians when they get desperate. Conservatives know Mr. Tillis doesn’t stand for their values and this is a clear sign he knows he’s losing the argument.”
The TV ad, which is airing across the state except in Charlotte and Raleigh, trumpets Tillis’ role as House Speaker when state lawmakers put the constitutional ban of same-sex marriage to a referendum and approved abortion restrictions.
“Being conservative, it’s not something you say, it’s something you do,” he says in the 30-second spot, which notes his endorsement from National Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization.
Harris spokesman Mike Rusher suggested the emphasis was disingenuous, saying his “actions don’t line up with the words.” He referred to Tillis’ remarks in 2012, amid the marriage amendment campaign, in which he told a college audience he expected the ban to be repealed in 20 years because of changing political sentiment.
Harris has staked out ground as the social conservative candidate, winning endorsements from the political committees of the National Organization of Marriage, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council, three leading organizations.
“How in the world can (Tillis) take that much credit if NOM has endorsed Mark over him,” Rusher said.