Commentary

Christensen: Mark Harris and the battle for the soul of the GOP

rchristensen@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2014 

Mark Harris

NCH

— Mark Harris is winding up his delivery, his voice rising, bending over in a fighter’s crouch, his right hand balled up in a fist.

“Can we do this?” he shouts. Yes, replies the crowd. “Can we do this?” he repeats. Yes, the crowd replies again and again.

If Harris is going to capture the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate on May 6, he needs to begin showing some movement quickly.

Harris, the former president of the Baptist State Convention, has been slow to catch fire in the GOP Senate primary. WRAL almost didn’t include him in its April 23 debate because he was polling under 10 percent, which was the cutoff criteria for participation.

But Harris thinks his campaign will get a lift from a TV and radio campaign that began Friday. And more important, he believes that a strong turnout effort, rooted in the churches, will make the difference.

Sleeper candidate

I have always considered Harris the sleeper candidate in the GOP Senate primary – the one easy to overlook but who potentially could benefit from a strong grass-roots effort in a low turnout primary.

The leader in the polls is House Speaker Thom Tillis, which leaves Harris trying to beat out Cary physician Greg Brannon, the tea party candidate, for a second spot in a runoff if Tillis cannot win 40 percent to capture the primary outright. Tillis is by far the best-financed candidate in the GOP primary with the backing of party establishment figures such as Karl Rove and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

If there is a runoff on July 15, the advantage could go to the candidate with a strong grass-roots organization.

“We have another candidate in this primary with two or three times the amount of money,” Harris told about 200 people at a rally at an auditorium at Forsyth Tech last week, the same place that President Barack Obama held an event in December 2010.

“All the money in the world won’t buy you character, consistency and courage,” Harris said. “All the money in the world won’t change a record.”

Soul of the party

If the primary is about character, Harris figures he is playing on his turf. He is, after all, a Baptist minister, and his opponents have had their troubles – college resumes, lawsuits, etc.

Harris may be a man of God, but he has hired a political operative, Tom Perdue, who owns one of the biggest switchblades in the South. The primary could get tough in the final weeks.

The rally had the polish of a church revival, complete with warm-up speakers and a Christian comedian. Harris, the pastor of a large downtown Charlotte church, is, as one might expect, a gifted public speaker with lots of charisma.

But Harris has to overcome several problems. He is unknown in political circles, has never held elective office, and the national party is worried about the ability of a deeply committed social conservative to win key suburban swing voters, particularly women.

On the other hand, Harris said, Republican voters don’t have to worry where he stands. Harris notes that he marched in Washington with James Dobson’s March for Life back in the early 1990s, prayed for the unborn at a Winston-Salem abortion clinic and headed the successful statewide effort in 2012 to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

“Someone said this is for the heart and soul of the GOP in North Carolina, this primary,” Harris said. “Others said this may very well be for the soul of the national GOP, this Senate race.

“You are not going to have any worries about where Mark Harris stands on the values issues.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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