RALEIGH — The Rev. Mark Harris, a leading social conservative, entered the North Carolina Senate race Wednesday, setting up a potential insider/outsider GOP primary showdown next May with House Speaker Thom Tillis.
Harris, the outgoing president of the state Baptist Convention, said he would campaign as a staunch advocate for lowering taxes, reducing government, ending Obamacare and protecting gun rights, that he would back measures that he believes would improve traditional moral values.
He said he would not shy away from his opposition to gay rights the issue that propelled him into the public eye last year when he was a leader in the referendum for state constitutional amendment that declared a marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
I am not a career politician, Harris said at a news conference at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, one of six he held across the state, beginning in Wilmington and ending with a reception in his hometown of Charlotte.
I support a strong, strong conservative domestic policy that is built around honoring the Constitution, that is built around shrinking government, and allowing the free market to drive progress in our country, Harris said before a small group of backers.
The entry by Harris suggests that the North Carolina GOP will undergo the sort of establishment vs. grass roots fight that has been seen in states across the country in recent years, particularly with the rise of the tea party movement. It is not just Harris. Dr. Greg Brannon, a Cary Obstetrician & Gynecologist , with strong tea party connections, who recently hired a staffer away from Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to manage his campaign, has been running for months.
While the Republicans battle it out, Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan will be able to build her political campaign kitty for the fall election.
It is definitely an insider versus outsider race, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Washington-based Cook Political Report.
Such battles have become common in Republican primaries, Duffy said. It was how Cruz won his Texas Senate seat. Since 2010, there have been similar Senate showdowns in Nevada, Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan.
The insiders have gotten to be a little more successful because they have watched other people lose them and have learned the lessons, Duffy said. The one thing that Tillis has going for him is that he may be an insider but he didnt serve in Congress. Those seem to be the guys with the hardest task because voters really do see them as part of the problem.
Tillis, the two-term N.C. House speaker and former IBM consultant from the Charlotte area, is regarded as a business conservative, and was a leader of the first GOP legislature in more than a century. He has the backing of Karl Rove, the former top adviser to President George W. Bush, and will appear at a Rove-sponsored event in D.C. on Thursday. Rove is scheduled to attend fundraisers in North Carolina next month. Tillis also has been encouraged in his race by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, although not formally endorsed.
I dont think its a done deal that Tillis gets the nomination, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
Taylor also noted that some of the opposition to Tillis within Republican ranks is not based on philosophy as much as personality, style and tribal factions.
A polished speaker
Social conservatives represent an important constituency within the Republican Party. Harris, a polished speaker with a forceful personality, is pastor of First Baptist Church, a large church in downtown Charlotte. He is also the outgoing president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, one of the states major cultural institutions headquartered in Cary, that counts 4,300 churches as it members.
Although Harris has never run for political office, he has put together an experienced team. He was flown around the state on a plane owned and piloted by former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord, the past state GOP chairman. His campaign strategist is veteran Tom Perdue, a Georgian whose wins include Republican Saxby Chambliss victory over Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia. The New York Times once described Perdue as brilliant and ruthless.
Hayes said a Harris/Tillis faceoff reminded him of the 1996 GOP gubernatorial primary, when with the support of social conservatives he upset the establishment favorite, Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot. Perdue ran Hayes campaign.
Money will matter
The question is whether Harris can raise enough money to be competitive.
If you have two candidates and one is an insider and one is an outsider, given the disgust with insiders and Washington politics and Raleigh politics, the outsider has a big advantage, said Carter Wrenn, a long-time GOP consultant from Raleigh. But the question is whether the funding is available to the both sides. It is a pretty sure guess that Tillis is going to have a reasonable amount of money, $1 million or $2 million. But the question is whether Harris gets enough money to tell anybody to vote for me. Unless you can get the money to get your message out there, nobody knows you are an outsider.
Harris predicted that he will raise enough money to be competitive with Tillis, who recently told CQ Roll Call that he would raise as much as $6 million for the primary.
Brannon reported raising $150,000 for the reporting period that ended Sept. 30 with $100,000 cash on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The fund raising reports for Harris and Tillis are not yet available. A fourth candidate running is Heather Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse.
Harris said there are sharp distinctions between himself and Hagan. But he was more reticent about laying out differences between himself and Tillis, saying those would become more apparent between now and the May primary.
But he suggested that GOP primary voters would find his social conservatism and his lack of political experience attractive.
I bring to the table a true conservative position, not only fiscally, but also a social conservative, he said.
He said he did not think his role as a leading opponent of gay marriages would hurt his candidacy.
I am not going up to Washington to pass legislation that limits homosexuals, Harris said. But I am going up there to see changes in our nation such as repealing Obamacare, such as getting spending under control, and dealing with this national debt
I dont think that hurts, because I think that marriage amendment passed by 61 percent here in the state.
Staff writer John Frank contributed Christensen: 919-829-4532