Brannon’s campaign faces tough questions after setbacks

jfrank@newsobserver.comFebruary 20, 2014 

Tea party favorite Greg Brannon officially entered the U.S. Senate race this week, even as his campaign faces scrutiny about its viability after a series of missteps.

Brannon quietly filed his candidacy papers on Wednesday, a day after a civil jury declared that he misled two investors in a technology company he helped launch.

The verdict may carry a political cost, experts say, raising questions about Brannon’s integrity just as he seeks to emerge from a crowded field of GOP primary challengers that includes House Speaker Thom Tillis.

“I think it’s a pretty tough blow for Brannon. He’s been trying to get a little traction and trying to become the credible alternative to Tillis, and this sort of knocks his knees out from under him,” said Carter Wrenn, a prominent Republican consultant.

“This isn’t a political attack,” he added. “It’s a jury verdict.”

Democratic consultant Gary Pearce put a finer point on it: “Two words: It’s fatal.”

“A jury found him guilty of misleading investors,” Pearce said. “How can he convince voters to trust him? The negative ad writes itself.”

The verdict isn’t the only early trouble for the Brannon campaign. On the same day, he faced questions about an unpaid property tax bill that he quickly settled. And earlier in the campaign, Brannon admitted that he had reviewed passages on his campaign website that plagiarized from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“I think anytime a candidate in a crowded primary has something emerge that is distracting, or perhaps causes undecided voters to look elsewhere, that is always going to be problematic,” said Joe Stewart, the executive director at the business-based N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, which analyzes campaigns.

‘Plan to see this thing through’

Brannon intends to appeal the lawsuit, saying he was treated unfairly. His campaign manager, Reilly O’Neal, disputed the notion that the unflattering attention would hurt his chances.

“I think there are a lot of people that would love to see Greg out of the race,” O’Neal said Thursday. “We are very optimistic and plan to see this thing through.”

Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, is one of five candidates competing for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan. The race is one of the marquee contests in the nation.

Other candidates on the ballot: Charlotte pastor Mark Harris, former Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant.

Ahead of the May 6 primary, the race remains unsettled, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political expert. “The question comes: Do any of the other candidates, especially Harris or Grant, capitalize on it in some way,” he said.

The other candidates in the race either declined to discuss the verdict’s affect on the race or did not return calls seeking comment.

All four – Brannon, Harris, Alexander and Grant – are seeking tea party support and vying to represent the alternative to Tillis, who remains ahead of the pack with leads in early polls, the most campaign cash and support from key national GOP figures.

“I think the big winner in all this is Tillis,” said Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist, of Brannon’s setbacks. “It doesn’t seem to me that anybody else is mounting much of a real campaign that’s capable of winning a statewide race.”

Supporters not backing down

Before the prolonged civil trial highlighted his failed business venture, Brannon’s stock was rising. Paul, a leading conservative figure, endorsed his campaign and he recently added the support of FreedomWorks, a national tea party organization. He is opening campaign offices for volunteers across the state, and talk show host Glenn Beck gave him rave reviews this week.

Brannon was trying to raise $150,000 by Monday for a small TV ad buy but the effort stalled in recent days at $100,000.

The headlines are not deterring Brannon’s most devoted supporters. Dee Sams, a tea party leader in Franklin County who hosted a Brannon fundraiser, said she is fielding calls about the legal case from like-minded conservatives, but so far no one is willing to consider another candidate.

“This is not the best thing in the world, but we all still support him,” she said.

Vallee Bubak, a founder of Lake Norman Conservatives, said many people are skeptical about the verdict, suggesting “if anything, we’ve doubled down and want to support him more.

“If we felt he did something wrong, maybe we would look to Harris,” she said. “But we haven’t lost anyone; we’ve gained support.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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