Rev. Mark Harris could jumble GOP Senate race

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comSeptember 12, 2013 

A Charlotte pastor Thursday named a prominent North Carolina Republican to help lead his campaign into a still wide-open primary to pick a challenger to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.

The contest will continue to take shape this month when one of the state’s top lawmakers announces whether he’ll join the race.

The Rev. Mark Harris told more than 200 supporters in Forsyth County Thursday that former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, who until this year led the state party, will co-chair his campaign.

Harris, pastor of First Baptist Church and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, plans to formally announce his candidacy on Oct. 2. He hopes to build on a base of social conservatives like those who helped pass last year’s constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

“It’s going to take a grass-roots movement of people willing to sacrifice, willing to get involved, maybe people who have never gotten involved before,” he said in a phone interview.

Harris would be the fourth announced candidate in a GOP field that comprises Greg Brannon of Cary, Heather Grant of Wilkesboro and House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius.

State Senate leader Phil Berger plans to announce this month whether he’ll join the field for the May primary, spokesman Ray Martin said Thursday.

Hagan will be one of the top GOP targets in 2014.

She’s one of seven Democratic senators in states carried last year by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, what Republicans call the “Red State 7.” North Carolina could help determine whether Republicans pick up the six seats they need to regain control of the Senate.

‘Undefined’ field

The race is rated a toss-up by many analysts, though a poll released this week by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling found Hagan with double-digit leads on all would-be opponents.

The Democratic-leaning firm also found Republican voters far from certain about a candidate. Forty-three percent said they had no preference. No single candidate had more than 13 percent support.

This week Berger launched a six-figure TV ad buy that criticizes Hagan’s opposition to voter ID, one of Republican lawmakers’ signature accomplishments this year. But the ad is running only in the Greensboro market, and some analysts doubt that Berger will run for Hagan’s seat.

Tillis, meanwhile, continues to raise money. He’d pulled in $277,000 through June, more than any Republican candidate but far short of the $3.5 million reported by Hagan.

On Thursday, Tillis’ campaign announced that former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner will help lead his finance team. He also announced four more fundraisers in the coming week.

Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said though the GOP field “is still pretty undefined,” she considers Tillis “the nominal front-runner simply because he’s put together the most serious, credible campaign.”

Brannon, a physician, is trying to build on support from tea party activists. He plans to bring in veterans of the campaigns of U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, both tea party favorites.

Grant, a nurse, is campaigning as “an everyday person.”

Winning votes

All the candidates know they have to appeal to the broad range of Republican voters.

“We believe it’s going to take a broad coalition of tea party followers, social conservatives and mainstream Republicans and of course unaffiliated (voters),” said Brannon campaign manager Reilly O’Neal.

Tillis consultant Paul Shumaker called his candidate the only one who appeals to fiscal and social conservatives as well as tea party Republicans.

Hayes calls Harris “a man of principle” who can appeal to the grass roots. Harris, who would be a first-time candidate, plans to appeal to conservative voters who share his values.

“My challenge will be to stay on that message,” he said. “I don’t have to get up in the morning to read the newspaper to figure out what I believe (or) see the latest poll to see what I should believe …

“I believe I’ve got a track record of being a leader, and I think our Founding Fathers intended we have leaders from all walks of life. That … certainly should include those that are pastors.”

After a news story about Harris’ pending entry, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Thursday issued a news release titled: “GOP Tea Party Primary-Palooza Alert: North Carolina Primary Gets Messier.”

But a wild card in the primary could be a Republican group.

American Crossroads, a group started by GOP consultant Karl Rove, launched the Conservative Victory Project to nominate electable conservatives. Spokesman Jonathan Collegio said the GOP lost a half-dozen Senate races since 2010 because of “unskilled candidates who made unforced errors.”

“To this point we have been pleased with the field as it has been developing in the North Carolina Republican primary,” Collegio said.

“But what we’re looking for is the most conservative and most electable candidate who can beat Kay Hagan next November.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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