Taking a more aggressive approach, Republican Mark Harris made the case Monday in the final U.S. Senate debate ahead of the May 6 primary that two of his rivals are unelectable because of their “political baggage.”
The Charlotte pastor questioned, though not by name, House Speaker Thom Tillis for pushing a political appointee who lined his pockets with campaign contributions and for undermining the effort to approve a constitutional ban on gay marriage. He pivoted to hit rival Greg Brannon for not supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 president election and for a civil judgment that he misled investors in his company.
“It is so critical that we have someone that is electable,” he said minutes into the debate. “There are two individuals on this platform tonight that carry with them baggage that I believe Kay Hagan will use to rip them apart.”
He compared Tillis to Arizona Sen. John McCain and Brannon to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – advocating for a middle way. “Many have said this primary is for the heart and soul of the North Carolina GOP and it’s for the heart and soul of the national GOP,” he said.
The attacks began in answering the first question and ended in Harris’ closing statement, bookending a debate that featured more contentious moments than two earlier forums. But even with the pointed language, the hourlong debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park did little to shake the race.
Brannon didn’t respond and Tillis didn’t seem fazed by the criticism, emphasizing his accomplishments in the General Assembly and his support for the constitutional gay marriage ban.
“Being conservative is not something you say, it’s something you do,” Tillis said, repeating a refrain from his latest television commercial. “And I’ve done it consistently in Raleigh, and I’ll do it consistently in Washington.”
Branon, a Cary obstetrician backed by Paul, questioned Tillis’ assertion about his credentials. He repeated Tillis’ statement calling the federal health care law a “great idea that can’t be paid for” and noted a measure approved by the state House in 2011 to develop a state-based insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
“I think there is a clear distinction between myself and Thom,” Brannon said.
Tillis defended his record, highlighting other efforts to block the health care law in North Carolina, including a 2013 bill to prevent a state exchange and deny the expansion of Medicaid.
The fourth candidate in the debate, Heather Grant, stayed out of the fray after pledging to run an attack-free campaign. She did blast Democrats and Washington, saying “we don’t need any more lifetime politicians.”
Tillis continues to lead in fundraising and polls show him nearing the 40 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff.
To further boost Tillis, Gov. Pat McCrory and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are expected to endorse him at a Tuesday event in Raleigh. Earlier this month, McCrory said Tillis represented the best chance for Republicans to win the seat this fall.
Tillis’ campaign is striving to avoid a July 15 runoff, knowing it would hamper their efforts to organize ahead of November and give Democrats an advantage. Tillis has shifted strategies in the final days to pull voters in his direction, attacking Brannon in a mailer and debuting a television advertisement designed to appeal to social conservatives aligned with Harris.
“I think (reaching 40 percent) is everything,” said Francis De Luca, the president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy organization that supported much of the Republican legislative agenda. “They don’t want to spend the next six weeks raising money for another primary campaign when very few people are going to vote.”
The final debate explored new ground with multiple foreign policy questions, though it did little to separate the candidates. All advocated tougher stances against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and tougher sanctions on Iran.
“We must be willing to have (military action) on the table,” Harris said. “The rebuilding of the former Soviet Union is in the national interest of the United States to stop it.”
Referring to the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, Tillis said, “America needs to continue to be that nation that the world looks to to defend freedom-loving people across the globe.
“We must recognize as the lone superpower that it comes with a responsibility to protect our border and our allies’ borders.”