Republican Mark Harris is setting his sights on rival Thom Tillis in the primary for U.S. Senate, shifting his strategy as he seeks to boost his numbers.
The Charlotte pastor is preparing to go negative for the first time in the campaign and more aggressively highlight what he sees as Tillis’ character flaws – specifically a sex scandal in the House speaker’s office, his ties to a gay rights supporter and appointments of campaign donors to powerful posts.
Harris campaign consultant Tom Perdue said Republican voters need to know about Tillis’ weaknesses and “now is the time” to push them into the Republican primary debate. If Republicans don’t, Perdue said in an interview Wednesday, Democrats surely will and it could hurt the party’s chances against U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in November.
Tillis “essentially lives a double life, he says one thing and does another,” Perdue said, adding “he’s nothing more than a typical Democrat.”
The charges echo those rival Greg Brannon is making about Tillis in campaign fundraising letters.
Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw issued a sharp rebuke against Harris. “At a time when all conservatives should be talking about Kay Hagan’s failures in Washington, it’s disappointing to see a campaign strategy that runs counter to the kind of reputation Rev. Harris has built,” Shaw said in a statement.
In an email to all his supporters, Harris released an internal poll this week putting him in second place at 22 percent behind Tillis, who received 33 percent. The poll is fraught with questions about its accuracy but its public release is telling: the fact Harris would issue polling numbers giving Tillis his best lead of the campaign and showing him down 11 points speaks to the challenges his campaign faces.
Perdue, a longtime Republican consultant based in Georgia, believes its shows the race is a two-man battle after the survey found Brannon, a tea party favorite, with 12 percent. The five other candidates in the race did not register significant numbers, he said, declining to provide the full results.
The campaign released the poll to show Harris is gaining, despite his lackluster start. “It’s hard to keep a base engaged if they don’t know where they are,” he said. “The fact that we are down actually means we are way up.”
An inital poll from September “basically told us ‘don’t run,’ ” Perdue said, noting Harris was an unknown to most voters.
Even Harris’ poll shows 65 percent haven’t formed an opinion about him, with those who do giving him a 28 percent positive mark to 14 percent negative. Tillis’ positive is stronger at 41 percent with 28 percent negative, it showed.
The poll is far from definitive. For one it polled only super voters, those who said they were very likely to vote in the GOP primary from a pool of Republican and unaffiliated voters that had cast ballots in three of the last four primaries. It even screened out those who said they were “likely” to vote, meaning it will not likely reflect the May 6 electorate.
The poll reached 700 of those voters March 11-13 through live callers. It has a stated margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.7 percent.
Perdue declined to release the full poll and crosstabs and likewise did not identify who conducted it. Without more details, it’s impossible to gauge whether the numbers are accurate. (For instance, the poll suggests that 12 percent of the GOP primary vote will be African-Americans. The Republican vote in the 2012 general election, which had a far higher turnout than predicted for May, saw 1.23 percent of its ballots from black voters.)
At the center of the poll is a lightning-rod messaging question that listed so-called character issues about Tillis. Perdue read the question to The News & Observer. It included a few factual stretches, but Perdue said it is based in truth. The pollers told voters to “Google Thom Tillis” to learn more.
The question asked voters if they were more or less inclined to vote for Tillis if they knew:
• Tillis claimed he knew nothing about a “staff sex scandal” in his legislative office
• He solicited campaign contributions from “homosexual activists”
• He said the constitutional ban on marriage could be overturned in 20 years and not to worry about its passage
• He gave “high-level appointments” to campaign donors who gave $100,000 to his campaign
The questions refer to these episodes, which are starting to get more attention in the race:
• Two inappropriate sexual relationships his staffers had with lobbyists, one involving Tillis’ chief of staff and roommate. Read more here.
• Campaign support from Paul Singer, a hedge fund billionaire and Republican donor who supports gay rights. Tillis said he disagrees with Singer’s position on the issue but agrees with him on fiscal policy. Read more here.
• His prediction that the gay marriage ban would be repealed within 20 years because of changing voter sentiments. (He didn’t suggest not to worry about its passage.) Read more here.
• The House appointed three people to the UNC Board of Governors who donated $70,000 to a super PAC supporting Tillis but operating independently of his campaign. (The group, Grow NC Strong, raised $105,000 total but not all from political appointees.) Read more here.
The poll, according to the Harris campaign, showed Tillis losing 6 percent support (falling to 27 percent) in a hypothetical matchup after hearing the question. Harris gained 16 percent to 38 percent and grabbed the lead while Brannon jumped 11 percent.
The shift is more pronounced when those voters were next asked who has the best chance to beat Hagan. Before the questions, Tillis and Harris were essentially tied at the top (39 and 36 percent, respectively). After the question, Harris was 26 percentage points ahead of Tillis.
“These results prove character moves voters,” the campaign wrote in the polling memo to reporters. “The undecideds and soft Tillis voters moved to Harris once they were told of Tillis’ characer/ethical issues.”
As a whole, the messaging reflects the “say one thing do another” line Perdue said he expects Harris to start using on the campaign trail. It’s unclear whether the Harris campaign will use the tactic in campaign advertising, which is needed to reach a broad swath of voters.
The poll did not asked about Brannon’s campaign troubles.
Tillis’ campaign said the poll is not believable. “It speaks to the level of credibility, or lack thereof, of this push-poll that they won’t release any data or details,” Shaw said.
He added, “It also appears that Rev. Harris is being led by political advisers instead of following the commandment against bearing false witness.”