Republicans seek North Carolina seat that could swing Senate balance

DAVIDSON, North Carolina Fri Apr 25, 2014 10:03am EDT

North Carolina U.S. Senatorial republican candidate Mark Harris (L), answers a question as Thom Tillis (R), Greg Brannon (2nd R), and Heather Grant look on during a debate at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3MA0B

North Carolina U.S. Senatorial republican candidate Mark Harris (L), answers a question as Thom Tillis (R), Greg Brannon (2nd R), and Heather Grant look on during a debate at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, April 22, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Todd Sumlin/Charlotte Observer/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3MA0B

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DAVIDSON, North Carolina (Reuters) - North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis says national Democrats have spent millions attacking him because they are worried he will win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the state's primary election on May 6 and take the seat in November.

"They fear our campaign the most," he said.

Tillis, 53, leads a crowded field of eight Republicans vying to challenge incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, 60, who faces her first re-election test in a polarized state that took a more conservative turn after she defeated Elizabeth Dole in 2008 and Barack Obama won North Carolina on the road to the White House.

Republicans controlled both the governor's office and the legislature last year for the first time in more than a century. With the aim of creating a more efficient government and fair elections, they enacted broad voting restrictions, curtailed unemployment benefits, cut taxes and refused to expand Medicaid, prompting lawsuits and weekly protests by thousands of people in the state capital.

Now, due in part to her support for President Obama's signature healthcare law, Republican congressional leaders consider Hagan vulnerable. They aim to pick up her seat and several others across the country to regain control in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats currently have a 53-45 majority. There are two Independent senators.

While Tillis boasts that he helped lead the state's "conservative revolution," he is not the clear favorite among voters, and it remains to be seen whether he can muster enough support to avoid a runoff.

"There's this sense that he's the front-runner, but there's also this sense that he's not moved as far right as a lot of the Republican loyalists would like him to move," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Nipping at Tillis' heels are several first-time political candidates with support from across the national Republican party.

U.S. senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah have backed Tea Party favorite Greg Brannon, an obstetrician who makes frequent references to the Constitution. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has expressed support for Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor who helped convince North Carolina voters to pass an amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2012.

At their first televised debate, held this week at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, the Republican slate differed in style but showed little distinction in platform.

Joined by a fourth candidate, nurse practitioner Heather Grant, all were opposed to increasing the federal minimum wage and legalizing medical marijuana. They disputed climate change and named federal agencies that they would eliminate.

They took repeated aim at Obamacare, arguing that the law still deeply unpopular among conservatives should be scrapped, sounding the Republican "repeal and replace" slogan.

"I believe I'm going to be the 51st senator in a majority that's going to repeal this bill," Tillis said.

REPUBLICAN VOTERS DIVIDED

Tillis has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life anti-abortion group. Yet some Republican primary voters remain unconvinced he will stand firm on their principles.

"He's cliche. He's supported by the establishment," said Carol Cheslock, 62, a Brannon supporter.

Hagan, the target of ads from groups backed by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers and Republican strategist Karl Rove, debuted a radio spot this month slamming Tillis for giving nearly $20,000 in taxpayer-funded severance packages to two legislative staffers who were forced to resign after admitting affairs with lobbyists.

Her campaign says he also has sent mixed messages about Obamacare, calling for its repeal while referring to it in an interview as a "great idea that can't be paid for."

Tillis says Democrats are "meddling" in the Republican primary, but Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said: "That ad comes after $11 million in spending directed at defeating Kay, and it is simply an effort to set the record straight on how Tillis is trying to have it both ways."

Polls show Tillis falling short of the 40 percent of the vote needed to secure his party's nomination outright. Democrats delight at the idea of a protracted intra-party contest that would strain Republicans' financial resources.

Tillis has raised $3.1 million compared with Hagan's $12.7 million war chest as of March 31, according to campaign finance reports, which also show the Democrat with about six times more cash on hand than her potential Republican challenger.

Republican strategist Brian Nick predicts Tillis will pull away from his primary opponents, win the nomination and put up a strong challenge to Hagan.

"This has national race written all over it," said Nick, Dole's former chief of staff. "Both sides are going to say a lot about each other's records, but it's really going to be about the national climate and a referendum on Obamacare."

(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)

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Comments (25)
njglea wrote:
Good Job, Democrats! Tell us who you want us to send a few dollars to so we can prevent this radical conservative out of Congress. Good people of North Carolina, follow the democrats’ lead and remove him and others like him from your State legislature. He’s working for the Koch brothers et al.

Apr 25, 2014 11:24am EDT  --  Report as abuse
4825 wrote:
Any one of the Republican candidates are a much better choice for the great state of NC than Democrat Kay Hagan. She has been a blind follower of the liberal democrat policy of Obama’s and needs to go. Retirement for her looks real good. Liberal Kool-Aid drinkers think everyone that is against their extreme liberal agenda works for the Koch brothers. Shows a real lack of judgment on their part.

Apr 25, 2014 11:51am EDT  --  Report as abuse
morbas wrote:
The power base of the Tea-GOP is in gerrymander projecting primary dictation of the lock step GOP authority. This is simply an implementation of an oligarch ALEC dictate. Within great revolutions, little protection is ever offered from a subversive power grab. As the spirited of cause is blinded by the power of monetarism propaganda. What is needed is an awaking of the people. We must resolve to vote in numbers and with resolve to ferret out this corporate republic subversion.

Tea GOP fairness is H-589 Voter disenfranchisement?
*Voters at polls must show a specific type of ID.
*Teen age pre-registration ends.
*Early Voting cut by 7 days.
*No same day registration.
*No out of Precinct voting.
*Loosening of Ad Slander responsibility and less campaign disclosure.
*Provides for vigilante challenges at the polls.
*Increases corporate money to the parties.
*Kills public financing options and raises contribution limits.
*Provides for mass absentee ballots.

In North Carolina 2013 the T’GOP enacted fragrant governmental power and liberty infringement over reach. All 2013 T’GOP NC legislation must be completely removed from the books to preserve inalienable rights of all citizens.

Yours, ever vigilant in NC
morbas(i)

Apr 25, 2014 12:03pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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