Morning Memo: What to watch for in the U.S. Senate debate

Posted by John Frank on April 22, 2014 

With a low-interest, high-stakes race, much is riding on the first debate Tuesday evening among the four top U.S. Senate candidates.

The hour long event from Davidson College is being broadcast statewide on Time Warner Cable News channels and streaming live on newsobserver.com and charlotteobserver.com.

Here’s a breakdown of what to expect.

IT MATTERS: No candidate, despite months of campaigning and millions of dollars spent, has galvanized the voters, putting more emphasis than normal on a series of three televised debates that start this week.

“With the few weeks we have left and all of them are pretty ideologically similar to each other ... it’s kind of an open game because it’s so undecided right now,” said Michael Bitzer, a state political expert at Catawba College.

THOM TILLIS ON THE HOT SEAT: The focus for all three events, political observers say, is House Speaker Thom Tillis, the candidate backed by the Republican establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican strategist Karl Rove.

Tillis leads his seven rivals in fundraising and in the polls, but he can’t seem to get the 40 percent needed to avoid a July 15 runoff. The debates also come the week after Democrats hit Tillis with attack ads detailing a sex scandal in his legislative office involving two top staffers who had extramarital affairs with lobbyists and the nearly $20,000 severance payments he authorized.

EXPECT A FEW VERBAL PUNCHES: “It will be interesting to see how everybody goes about dealing with Tillis – whether it becomes a piling-on-Tillis session, which I think is a fairly likely scenario,” Andy Taylor, a political watcher at N.C. State University, said of the debates.

David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University in Raleigh, put it more bluntly. “It’s sort of like watching a prize fight – who can score the most in their attacks on Thom Tillis,” he said.

THE KEY FOR TILLIS: The challenge for Tillis is to respond to the claims and show he can deflect a punch. “He’s got to be able to send a signal that he’s the best one to beat Kay Hagan,” Bitzer said.

THE KEY FOR BRANNON, HARRIS AND GRANT: Either way, the political observers said, the other three candidates in the first debate – Cary obstetrician and tea party activist Greg Brannon, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Wilkesboro nurse Heather Grant – are looking to establish themselves. All are first-time political candidates seeking to court Republicans who identify with the tea party.

“I think really their goal is to be in a runoff with Tillis,” Taylor said. “So you’ve got to try to differentiate yourself from Tillis, undermine Tillis’ support so he can be under 40 percent, but do so in a deft enough way that you emerge as the alternative.” Read more here.

*** Read about a McCrory administration official’s ties to a big donation in the Senate race and why a tea party organization endorsed Thom Tillis – all below in the Dome Morning Memo.***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory will attend the first meeting of his new jobs initiative behind closed doors at 10:30 a.m. at the executive mansion. He later plans to attend a private N.C. Association of County Commissioners leadership team meeting at 4 p.m. at the Capitol. His final event on the public calendar is a 4:30 p.m. reception with North Carolina basketball champions.

Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr will address a state legislative committee looking at the Affordable Care Act, as the partisan-leaning effort takes its show on the road. The Republican-led committee is highlighting problems with the federal health care law as U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan seeks re-election and Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis mounts a challenge.

The panel will meet at 10 a.m. at the Elliot University Center Auditorium on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. The lawmakers started their study in March by hearing from a Duke University professor who has denounced President Barack Obama as a fascist. In addition to Burr, a health care law critic who is pitching an alternative plan, the panel will hear from NFIB, an organization that opposes the law, the N.C. Association of Health Underwriters and Guy Pierce, the owner of Assisted Living Homes.

DEBATE DETAILS: It starts at 7 p.m. and features questions from a panel of reporters and then questions from the audience.

The moderator is Tim Boyum at Time Warner Cable News. The panelists asking questions: Loretta Boniti of TWC News, Lynn Bonner, of The News & Observer and Taylor Batten of the Charlotte Observer.

The candidates are expected to be available in a “spin room” after the debate.

#NCSEN --

BRANNON IRKS TEA PARTY GROUP, SO THEY ENDORSE THOM TILLIS: From the Hickory Daily Record – Officers with the Catawba Valley Tea Party PAC say a U.S. Senate candidate falsely claimed their endorsement. The group announced last week it endorsed a different candidate.

The executive committee endorsed N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis for the Republican primary, group president Thomas Kern said. Tillis spoke at a group meeting April 10. ...

Dr. Greg Brannon, another candidate vying for the Republican nomination, falsely claimed the Catawba Valley group’s backing, Kern said. ... “We never had even discussed endorsements or anything, and he never retracted that,” Kern said. “The fact that he didn’t retract that diminished his credibility to us.” [Brannon was endorsed by iCaucus, a tea party group that was once affilated with the Catawba Valley Tea Party.] Read more here.

COMPANY LINKED TO ALDONA WOS DONATED $50K TO GROUP SUPPORTING TILLIS: A company that shares an address with another owned by the husband of state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos donated $50,000 to American Crossroads, the political committee spending $1 million this month supporting Thom Tillis.

As reported by the Sunlight Foundation, an open government watchdog, the donation came in February and represented one of the month’s biggest donations, though it is hard to track.

The money came from LMD Properties. The address listed in the Crossroads filings shares an address with New Breed Corp., whose chairman and CEO is Louis DeJoy, Wos’ husband.

Wos and DeJoy are major Republican donors and gave big to President George W. Bush. Wos served as an ambassador to Estonia in the Bush administration. A key player in Crossroads is Karl Rove, who served as a political strategist in the Bush White House.

LMD Properties, formed in 1998, does not disclose its owners in corporate filings, Sunlight reported, and did not respond to calls. This is its first donation to a federal campaign committee, the website reported. Read more here.

MORE: A look at the Senate race from OpenSecrets.org. Read it here.

THE ALSO-RANS: Four candidates will appear in Tuesday’s debate. Four more won’t. Here’s a look at the four other candidates with their name on the ballot who are polling in the single digits, raising little campaign money and struggling to mount a legitimate challenge: Jim Snyder, Ted Alexander, Alex Bradshaw and Edward Kryn. Read more here.

THOM TILLIS’ PROBLEM: From columnist Scott Mooneyham – Thom Tillis has a problem.

Tillis is running in a primary this spring. So is Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democratic U.S. senator whom he hopes to eventually unseat. ...

Hagan is running against Tillis. That is his problem. Tillis is having to fend off both his primary opponents and Hagan before he can ever get to a general election campaign. Read more here.

HEADLINE: From The New York Times – Incumbent southern Democrats are less vulnerable than you think. Read more here.

#NCPOL ---

2nd District Republican primary – IMMIGRATION DEFINES RENEE ELLMERS’ GOP CHALLEGER: In an op-ed in The Fayetteville Observer in January, Ellmers wrote that she supports stronger border security and more enforcement of immigration laws as well as a legal status for those who acknowledge entering the country illegally and make amends.

Ellmers says that’s not “amnesty” or any special “path to citizenship.” But Roche argues that it is. The Randolph Tea Party recently agreed and endorsed him, saying the group opposed “amnesty or any other path for legalization of illegal immigrants.”

Roche wants a sharp reduction in legal immigration – just enough people to meet the needs of industries that depend on immigrant labor. He also calls for an end to multilingual government communications and to access to education and medical care for illegal immigrants. Read more here.

RENEE ELLMERS DEBUTS TV AD: U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers’ campaign announced Monday it is airing a television advertisement in the Republican primary, a sign that her opponent is making her nervous.

The campaign refused to release details about the spot, except to say it is running in Raleigh and Greensboro, making it impossible to verify it is running or gauge its effectiveness.

The 30-second ad also does not include citations to support claims that she passed “a small business bill that’s creating thousands of North Carolina jobs.” The ad starts by saying she’s working to “repeal and replace” the federal health care law. See the ad here.

NEWS YOU DIDN’T NEED TO KNOW: James Protzman, a brief gubernatorial candidate who dropped out of the 2016 race more than two years before it started, announced Monday he is backing Ken Spaulding for the Democratic nomination against Attorney General Roy Cooper.

McCRORY TO SPEAK AT MAINE GOP CONVENTION: AP – The convention this Friday and Saturday at the Cross Center in Bangor will feature addresses by 2014 presidential contender Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, along with Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Gov. Paul LePage.

The Maine Republican Party will aim to put its best foot forward. Unity is the theme of the convention: “United for Jobs, United for Freedom, United for Maine.” Read more here.

PITTENGER FACES A REPUBLICAN CHALLENGE: With no Democrat on the ballot, freshman U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s only challenge this year will come in the 9th District’s Republican primary.

Pittenger, 65, faces Mike Steinberg in a rematch of sorts. In 2012, the two were among 11 Republicans who battled for the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick.

Steinberg, who finished seventh, vows this time will be different. Read more here.

CONSERVATIVE GROUP LAUNCHING ATTACKS IN 6th DISTRICT GOP PRIMARY: Keep Conservatives United, a website and organization linked to former Jesse Helms researcher Bob Harris, is attacking Bruce VonCannon and Mark Walker with questionable claims. Read more here.

FROM GREENSBORO: The 12th District race to fill Mel Watt’s seat is crowded. Read more here.

CRISCO ENDORSEMENT: The Democrat who challenged Rep. Renee Ellmers in 2012 has endorsed Keith Crisco in this year’s Democratic primary against Clay Aiken. “Keith Crisco is conducting the right kind of campaign for the Second District and has proven he’ll have the resources, support and organization to defeat Renee Ellmers this fall,” Steve Wilkins said in a statement released by Crisco’s campaign.

NARAL WADES INTO DEMOCRATIC PRIMARIES: Two Democratic lawmakers facing challenges in Greensboro are getting a boost from a Democratic-aligned group.

The political action committee of N.C. NARAL, an abortion rights organization, announced Monday it is endorsing Rep. Pricey Harrison and Sen. Gladys Robinson in their primary elections. Pricey Harrison and Gladys Robinson have a strong record of standing with NC women and families. We are confident they will continue to support policies that promote women’s health and keep politicians out of women’s personal, private reproductive health care decisions,” said Suzanne Buckley, the organization’s executive director.

REACTION TO FILM INCENTIVES MIXED: From the Wilmington Star-News – Finding the legislative willpower to extend North Carolina’s film credits so coveted by film supporters in Wilmington, Charlotte and the state’s other TV and movie towns will require the support of legislators from areas less directly affected by the industry.

An informal poll of some of those lawmakers by the StarNews drew mixed reaction to the incentive program that expires at the end of this year. Read more here.

QUICK HEADLINES –

The public school, voucher debate alive in Asheville. Read more here.

A look at the Democratic primary in Senate District 8 race to challenge Sen. Bill Rabon. Read more here.

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