In second run for Senate, Brannon hopes to tap into anger at Washington establishment

Dr. Greg Brannon, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, speaks during a town hall meeting held at The Event Center in Salisbury on Feb. 18, 2016.
Dr. Greg Brannon, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, speaks during a town hall meeting held at The Event Center in Salisbury on Feb. 18, 2016. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

In “Why I’m Running,” a video promoting his 2016 run for the U.S. Senate, Dr. Greg Brannon says it’s time for “a revolution of ideas, a revolution of principles” in Washington.

As he speaks, the screen flashes images of Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz – the outsider Republicans who have shaken up this year’s race for the GOP presidential nomination.

Brannon is hoping to do in North Carolina what Cruz did in the Iowa caucuses and what Trump did in the New Hampshire primary.

Beat the establishment.

In Brannon’s case, that would mean upsetting U.S. Sen. Richard Burr in the March 15 Republican primary. In social media and in radio ads, Brannon’s campaign has cast Burr as a member of the Washington establishment who’s “unwilling to fight for conservative principles.” Burr’s 21-year record in Washington, one Brannon ad says, includes voting nine times to raise the federal debt ceiling.

This is the second Senate campaign in two years for Brannon. The Cary-based physician ran as a tea party-friendly Republican in 2014 for the chance to take on U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C. He lost the GOP primary to Thom Tillis, the former speaker of the N.C. House who went on to unseat Hagan in the most expensive Senate race in history.

In the GOP primary that year, Brannon received 27 percent of the vote to Tillis’ 46 percent.

That was then, this is now, Brannon, 55, said in an interview. As evidence of a voter appetite for even greater change, he pointed to poll numbers in North Carolina that show more support for Trump, Cruz and Dr. Ben Carson than for those presidential candidates favored by GOP leaders.

Polls have Burr way ahead of Brannon and his two other challengers in the Republican primary. A January poll conducted by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling put Burr ahead of Brannon, 55 percent to 10 percent.

But after holding 16 town hall meetings across the state – three to five a week – Brannon said he’s convinced N.C. Republican voters want a senator more like Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky – hardcore conservatives who will engage in filibusters if necessary in an effort to stop legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, federal funding of Planned Parenthood and other items favored by the Democrats.

“The rank-and-file (Republicans) – they’re looking for the (Ronald) Reagans, they’re looking for the conservatives like Lee, Paul and Cruz in our state,” Brannon said.

He even joked that, as an obstetrician and pelvic surgeon who has delivered more than 9,000 babies in his medical career, he has more than enough physical stamina to wage a filibuster on the Senate floor.

“I can go 36, 40 hours easy,” Brannon said, then turned serious: “If you’re asking me: Will I stop an unconstitutional function by doing a filibuster? The answer’s not just yes, it’s heck yes.”

Brannon quotes the U.S. Constitution like a preacher quotes the Bible. And if elected to the Senate, Brannon, a devout evangelical Christian who’s been a medical missionary around the world, said he’d want to be “a missionary ... for the gospel of liberty and freedom.”

“I really believe my missionary (territory) would be D.C.,” he said. “If America loses its freedom and liberty, where else is the world going to run to?”

The California-born Brannon traces his love for America’s founding document – and for conservatism – to his mother, who raised him and his brother alone.

She gave him encyclopedias that told of Columbus, George Washington and the early America of the Founding Fathers. Brannon said she also shared her enthusiasm for her political heroes: Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Goldwater was the conservative Arizona senator who beat the GOP establishment of his day by winning the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. And Reagan, equally conservative, went from promoting Goldwater’s candidacy to getting elected governor of California in 1966 and president in 1980.

Brannon said that the Republican Party of Reagan and Goldwater, which stood tough for conservative principles, has been betrayed by Burr and the GOP leaders now running the Senate and House in Washington.

Burr voted with the Republican majority in 2013 to avert the “fiscal cliff” and later to end a federal government shutdown. But the senator dismissed Brannon’s charge that he’s not sufficiently conservative, pointing to a record that includes high scores for his votes from such groups as the American Conservative Union, the Family Research Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Two years ago, during his nomination battle with Tillis, Brannon snared a host of endorsements from conservative groups (FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party organization), talk-show hosts (Mark Levin) and U.S. senators (Paul and Lee).

This year, with Brannon’s opponent an incumbent Republican senator, those kind of national endorsements appear to have dried up.

Brannon’s campaign is also at a severe financial disadvantage. His campaign started the new year with $49,000, while Burr’s was sitting on more than $5 million.

On Friday, hoping to boost online contributions to his campaign, Brannon announced in an email to potential donors that his campaign would give away a CORE-15 M4 rifle “to one lucky supporter.”

David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh, said Brannon could still possibly catch fire if he can galvanize enough angry voters who want to nominate him to break up the status quo.

“For people who look at Washington and see a system that’s broken and see that Burr, who’s been up there a long time, is part of the problem, then Greg Brannon could be that viable alternative who would not go to Washington and act in the same way,” McLennan said. “The question is: Can Brannon raise enough money to get the message out that he is that guy.”

Brannon, who has said he would push to abolish the IRS as unconstitutional, also acknowledged that he is paying off almost $175,000 he owes to the federal tax collection agency.

“The last campaign destroyed me (financially),” he said. “I’m paying that back (under a payment plan). They’ll get their money.”

None of these road bumps appears to have slowed Brannon’s frenetic campaigning or dimmed his passion for running on issues that matter to him.

His opposition to abortion tops that list. He’s on the board at Hand of Hope, a pregnancy support group near Raleigh, and is a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“We’re made in (God’s image),” said Brannon, who has seven children, three of them adopted from China. “And life is the first inalienable right” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

Brannon said he’ll also be talking in the campaign about better protecting U.S. borders, about building up the military and about getting the federal government out of areas like health and education.

Said Brannon: “Everything we’re discussing – every single thing – is because the federal government usurped (its) power.”

Dr. Greg Brannon

Age: 55

Education: B.S., University of Southern California, 1982; M.D., Chicago Medical School, 1988; Completed residency at University of Southern California Women’s Hospital in Los Angeles County, 1992.

Professional experience: In April 1993, he moved to North Carolina to be an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. He also taught at Wake Area Health Education Center. Since November 1993, he has had a private practice in Cary as an obstetrician and pelvic surgeon.

Political resume: Has never held public office.

Family: He and wife Jody have seven children, ages 6 to 25.

Website: gregbrannon.nationbuilder.com