GOP Senate candidates to focus on Charlotte area before primary

The Charlotte area will be the center of the state’s political universe Monday as the three major Republican candidates for U.S. Senate focus their attention on voters here during the last full day of campaigning.

On the eve of Tuesday’s primary, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis will be knocking on doors in Huntersville; the Rev. Mark Harris will be making phone calls at a get-out-the-vote site in Charlotte; and Dr. Greg Brannon will appear with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., during a noon rally at uptown Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame.

They and five others are vying for the chance to take on U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, the Democrat incumbent from Greensboro, in November.

“Mecklenburg County has about 10 percent of the vote, no matter how you slice it,” said Mike Rusher, campaign spokesman for Mark Harris, who pastors First Baptist Church of Charlotte. “Any county that holds that big a percentage – your success or failure could be tied to how well you do here.”

The GOP race, which will be decided in a July 15 runoff if none of the candidates gets at least 40 percent of the vote Tuesday, has drawn the attention of the national news media in a year when Republicans are given a good chance of taking control of the U.S. Senate.

On Sunday, reporters from The Washington Post and Politico were among those peppering frontrunner Tillis with questions when he showed up at his campaign headquarters in Cornelius to greet phone bank volunteers and make some calls himself.

Paul and other possible contenders for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 have also waded into the North Carolina contest, endorsing those Senate candidates that appeal to parts of the Republican base they’re counting on in their own runs for the White House.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who is a favorite with conservative Christian voters, has endorsed Harris. And between Saturday and Monday, “several hundred thousand” N.C. Republican voters will get automated, pro-Harris calls recorded by Huckabee, Rusher said Sunday.

Paul, who’s a darling of the tea party wing of the GOP, is flying into Charlotte on Monday to appear alongside Brannon.

“Both Sen. Paul and Dr. Brannon attract many who maybe haven’t been involved before in the political process,” said Brannon campaign spokesman Reilly O’Neal. “But they know it’s time for change.”

Last week, Tillis got his own big-name endorsement: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is emerging as the first choice for president in 2016 for many in the Republican establishment.

Tillis is also favored by the GOP establishment, in North Carolina and nationally, as the best bet for Republicans to unseat Hagan this year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other longtime GOP allies, has spent money in the state on ads promoting Tillis and attacking Hagan.

And in recent days, voters have gotten automated calls featuring endorsements of Tillis from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory.

But on Sunday, speaking with reporters at his campaign headquarters, the N.C. House speaker seemed wary of the establishment candidate moniker and instead stressed his conservative credentials.

He pointed out that he’s getting campaign calls and other help from such conservative groups as the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life. And he touted his leadership in a GOP-controlled state legislature that has dramatically changed North Carolina by passing a long list of bills popular with conservatives.

“I get to run on (a record of) three solid years of a conservative revolution in North Carolina that’s made sense,” he said. “The ‘establishment’ label is something that’s convenient, particularly for people who are behind to kind of post on someone. I was in the minority longer than I was in the majority in the North Carolina House. … So I’ve been about breaking up the establishment, not becoming part of it.”

Brannon and Harris are each hoping for two things on Tuesday: That Tillis will fall short of the 40 percent that would give him the nomination and that they will get a spot in the runoff by finishing in second place.

But the latest polls suggest that Tillis may be on the verge of getting more than enough votes Tuesday to become the Republicans’ nominee. A poll released last week by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling had Tillis at 46 percent, trailed by Brannon at 20 percent and Harris at 11 percent.

When asked Sunday whether Brannon or Harris could defeat Hagan in November if they were to become the nominee, Tillis was skeptical: “I think they would have a very difficult time doing it.”

In response, the Brannon and Harris campaigns said their candidates poll as well or better than Tillis in head-to-head matchups with Hagan and that the House speaker would enter the fall campaign weighed down by controversies that would make him an easy target for Democrats.

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