WINSTON-SALEM — Five Republican U.S. Senate candidates sat at the front of an auditorium Tuesday to make their case for why they were the best candidate to beat Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan in November.
One chair at the front sat empty.
Thom Tillis didn’t show.
It’s the third candidate forum that the state House speaker has skipped and the second this month. The two previous forums were hosted by county tea party groups – a population skeptical of Tillis’ candidacy – but the latest event was hosted by the county Republican Party in a part of the state where Tillis will need to run strong to win his party’s nomination.
“You’ll notice at the end of the row we have an empty seat,” Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Scott Cumbie said at the start of the forum in Winston-Salem. “We have one candidate who is not here tonight. I just want you to be aware of that because it is important that our candidates are here with the people so we can hear from them.”
Tillis’ absence is a driving storyline for party activists in the still-young race. But political analysts say it is a strategic calculation – and one with an unclear result.
“Tillis has made a classic decision for an ‘establishment’ and front-runner candidate,” N.C. State University political science professor Andrew Taylor said. “He has nothing really to gain (from debating in candidate forums) ... as each of the others tries to emerge as the strongest and most credible alternative to Tillis.
“The risk,” Taylor continued, “is that he continues to be portrayed as an insider, a career politician and deal-maker at a time when North Carolina Republicans may be looking for someone with a fresh perspective who is not willing to compromise on certain core issues.”
Focus on TV ads
Instead, Tillis is putting his efforts toward raising campaign cash and directing his money to a television ad campaign that allows him to reach more voters and better control his message. His campaign spent $300,000 earlier this month to air TV ads that emphasize the need for accountability in Washington. The ads attempt to depict Tillis as an outsider to the process and avoid mentioning his role as the state House speaker in Raleigh.
So far it is working. A new survey from Public Policy Polling released Tuesday found Tillis with a clear advantage as the favorite of 19 percent of Republican voters, up 6 points since he began his TV ads.
Greg Brannon posted the next-best number at 11 percent. But 44 percent of Republican primary voters remain undecided, the Raleigh-based Democratic polling firm found, suggesting that many of the 200-plus attendees at the forum were still looking to pick a candidate.
Tillis is expected to hit the campaign trail more frequently later his month, his campaign manager Jordan Shaw said, including a number of events with other candidates.
“There’s no avoidance,” Shaw said, citing a scheduling conflict Tuesday. “That’s not the issue. The issue is simply logistics. The speaker can only be at one place at a time.”
The voters seem more skeptical.
“He’s probably so self-assured that he has it wrapped up,” said Elaine Van Auken, a 62-year-old from neighboring Davie County. “But people are really mad at politicians,” she said pointing to Tillis.
“I haven’t seen him,” said Betty Parker, a 66-year-old Winston-Salem Republican who has attended a number of Senate campaign events. “I think it’s very important and he should be here.”
For other candidates, who don’t have as much campaign cash or name recognition, the forums are a “great equalizer,” said John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political expert, “as we see from presidential primary debates.”
The forums are also an opportunity to energize party activists who play an outsized role in primary contests as dedicated voters and campaign volunteers.
“On one hand, they have the potential to energize the party faithful and generate news stories focusing on critiques of the other party and the incumbent,” Dinan said. “But the downside is that they can just as easily generate news stories focusing on divisions within the party.”
At the two-hour forum, the five challengers – Ted Alexander, Brannon, Bill Flynn, Heather Grant and Mark Harris – struck similar themes as they emphasized the need to rein in what they called the federal government’s “oppression” of the states, limit entitlement spending and repeal the federal health care law.
Echoes of the tea party
The most popular lines echoed tea party talking points. The federal government is “trying to regulate and control virtually every aspect of our lives,” said Alexander, the former Shelby mayor who entered the race this week.
“Right now we are spending things with Monopoly money because we don’t have constitutional money,” said Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and gynecologist, who said real currency is gold and silver.
“The governor should have stood up with interposition,” said Bill Flynn, a Winston-Salem radio personality, indicating Gov. Pat McCrory should have nullified federal mandates such as the health care law. “That’s the kind of thing that we need to see in North Carolina.”
“The biggest thing we need to fix is our federal government,” said Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse and first-time candidate. “The fact is it is growing by leaps and bounds.”
“We need to stand up to a president who is building a federal government on steroids,” said Harris, a Charlotte pastor and former leader of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Brannon and Harris are expected to mount the most serious challenges to Tillis in the race. Brannon recently scored the endorsement of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and Harris is known for helping push the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage two years ago.
But the two candidates did little to differentiate themselves in the forum, noting often how they agreed with the other little-known challengers.
Brannon stood alone in stating he voted against Mitt Romney for president in 2012, even as other candidates criticized Republicans who stayed home on Election Day.
Romney, Brannon said, favored abortion rights until 2007. “To me, you cannot ever waver on life,” he said.