Admirers swarmed U.S. Sen. Rand Paul at Big Ed’s restaurant, where he was making a campaign stop Wednesday morning for Senate candidate Thom Tillis.
Paul, who is expected to run for president in 2016, shook hands, answered questions and posed for pictures while Tillis greeted his campaign volunteers on the periphery of the tight circle around the Kentucky Republican.
Paul was there to bolster Tillis’ standing among the party’s more conservative voters – and it appeared to be working at least for some.
Tiffany Birkner of Apex called Paul a “rock star” and said she had strongly supported Greg Brannon, the Cary doctor Paul had endorsed in the state’s Republican primary.
Birkner said she was hesitant to vote for Tillis (“way too wishy washy”) but said she would do so with the bigger picture in mind.
“It’s 100 percent about making the Senate Republican,” Birkner said.
Tillis, the N.C. House speaker, is challenging incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in a race whose outcome may determine control of the U.S. Senate.
Recent polls show the race to be a toss-up. Brannon had strong tea party backing, and Tillis has not won over some of those voters. Some political analysts have said Libertarian candidate Sean Haugh, who is polling in single digits, could be a spoiler for Tillis.
Tillis said Paul’s appearance demonstrates the broad support his campaign has received. Paul is the third potential GOP presidential candidate to campaign for Tillis in the last few weeks. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie campaigned for Tillis last month.
“I’m thrilled to have the broad support that I do,” Tillis said.
But many tea party conservatives are disaffected with him.
That stems in part from his refusal to attend several tea party-sponsored primary debates and the perception that he’s the establishment candidate who represents politics as usual.
“There is no way we could even remotely get behind him,” said Jane Bilello, who chairs the Asheville Tea Party. “We would have to abandon and betray everything we believe in. And that’s not going to happen.”
Some conservatives are thinking about voting for Haugh or a write-in candidate.
Bilello’s group on Thursday is hosting write-in candidate John Rhodes, a Huntersville real estate broker and former state lawmaker Tillis defeated in 2006 to win his first term in the House.
Tracy Perina of Raleigh wore a Ron Paul T-shirt to Big Ed’s. Ron Paul, Rand’s father, is a former congressman who ran for president three times, once as a Libertarian.
Perina, 48, said she seriously considered voting for Haugh.
Tillis “strikes me as more establishment, which we need to get away from,” she said. Paul’s support for Tillis was a factor in her decision to vote for Tillis.
“I trust Rand Paul more than I do Thom Tillis,” she said.
Paul said there’s an overlap between Libertarian and Republican ideas: “Lower taxes, the Constitution, limited government, balanced budget, personal liberties. I think Thom represents those ideas.”
As Paul and Tillis spoke, the strains of anti-Tillis chants from the sidewalk by a dozen protesters organized by Planned Parenthood Votes provided the background sound.
Paul headlined a fundraiser for Tillis after the restaurant appearance.