Rand Paul's endorsement boosts Brannon's campaign, shows GOP divide

jfrank@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2013 

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a leader in the national tea party movement, endorsed Republican Greg Brannon in North Carolina’s marquee U.S. Senate race Wednesday, giving the Cary physician’s low-profile campaign a needed boost.

In a statement, Paul called Brannon “a true constitutional conservative who will join me in fighting against business as usual in Washington.”

“Americans are looking for leaders who will honor their oath of office by fighting to ‘protect and defend’ the Constitution and Greg is the clear choice for conservatives in North Carolina,” he continued.

Paul’s decision to support a long-shot candidate, instead of top-tier contenders House Speaker Thom Tillis and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris, exemplifies the split in the national Republican Party visible in Washington amid the government shutdown and debt ceiling debate. Brannon is catering to tea partiers. Tillis is drawing support from establishment Republicans. And Harris is attracting interest from conservative evangelicals.

“It confirms what we thought for a couple years now, that there are a lot of different belief systems going on in the Republican Party,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh. “In North Carolina, the Senate race is just a reflection of what’s going on in Washington.”

The endorsement alone is unlikely to push Brannon to the front of the race for the GOP nomination, but he said it gives his candidacy credibility. “I think it will give us some true legitimacy and help us with fundraising and put a focus on our message … about who is sovereign and what is the legitimate role of the government,” he said in an interview.

Calling Paul a “liberty leader,” Brannon said he agrees with him and Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, “virtually on everything.” Brannon also expects Paul to come campaign in North Carolina. Paul’s spokesman did not return a message Wednesday.

Brannon launched his campaign in February with little fanfare. He said he has traveled 25,000 miles since then taking his message across the state to tea party and Republican groups.

As a practicing OB-GYN, Brannon focuses on the federal health care law. He said he supports the current battle to defund the law and resulting shutdown. He disputes the notion that the United States would default on its loans.

“Some fights are worth fighting no matter what, and this fight is worth fighting,” he said.

Paul, Brannon linked

Stephen Voss, a political expert at the University of Kentucky, said it’s the kind of underdog campaign that often draws the attention of Paul. Like Brannon, Paul is a physician. Paul graduated from Duke University’s School of Medicine and practiced as an ophthalmologist.

The son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul supports as many long-shot candidates as front-runners, Voss said, and his pick is no guarantee of success. “He is extremely active as an endorser both in primaries and general elections, trying to use his bully pulpit to (expand) his brand,” Voss said.

In his endorsement, Paul referenced Brannon’s improbable campaign and likened it to his own. “As Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and I showed clearly in our campaigns, when you run on principle and excite the grass-roots Republicans, and independents and even Democrats hungry for a change, you win,” he said.

A new October poll from Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, shows nearly half of Republican primary voters polled are still undecided about the race. In a hypothetical matchup, PPP found Tillis in the lead at 19 percent, with Harris, Brannon and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant all clustered near 11 percent.

Grant, who filed in August, has not been actively campaigning.

The poll, which has a plus-or-minus 4.2 percent margin of error, found 72 percent of GOP primary voters don’t know Brannon enough to have an opinion.

To boost his name recognition, Brannon will need more campaign cash. His campaign announced he raised $155,000 from July to October with $105,000 on hand.

By comparison, Tillis’ campaign announced it had $800,000 after the third quarter, though his report has not been released. Tillis is trying to raise $12 million with about half coming before the May primary.

Harris, who launched his bid Oct. 2 but began raising money earlier, raised $128,000 and reported $90,000 cash on hand, according to his campaign.

Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan reported this week that she raised $1.8 million in the past three months for a total $5.4 million in the bank.

GOP voters divided

The battle to challenge Hagan is complicated by a divided Republican Party split into three main coalitions: moderates, evangelicals and tea partiers. Though united by party, each is motivated by a different set of issues, according to a recent study from Stan Greenberg and James Carville for Democracy Corps, which included a focus group with GOP votes in Raleigh.

Tillis, a former businessman and outgoing N.C. House leader, is drawing his initial support from established Republican donors and lawmakers. But in addition to his fiscal message, Tillis touts legislation he supported to loosen rules on concealed-carry gun permit holders and toughen abortion regulations.

‘The coalition builders’

“Thom Tillis is the only candidate who has a record, not just rhetoric, of delivering conservative results,” said campaign manager Jordan Shaw. “We are putting together a team across the state that touches every segment of the Republican Party.”

Harris, the outgoing president of the Baptist State Convention, is expected to roll out his own endorsements in coming months. Spokesman Mike Rusher said Harris draws interest from more than just religious voters.

“The Christian conservatism is something that is respected among establishment types and tea party folks as well,” he said. “It carries weight across all spectrums of the Republican Party.”

Brannon, too, is trying to broaden his label beyond being the tea party candidate. He said he is an evangelical Christian who opposes abortion and supports economic conservatism.

“We are the coalition builders without having to change who I have been,” he said.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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