Morning Memo: Senate debate moves to round 2

Posted by John Frank and Katie Reilly on April 23, 2014 

Round 1 ended without a major moment. Round 2 starts today.

The Republican candidates for U.S. Senate will trade words again Wednesday in a Raleigh television studio and more is needed from Thom Tillis’ rivals if they expected to upset the current status where the House speaker sits atop the pile of eight candidates.

Columnist Rob Christensen analyzed the first debate. He writes in today’s paper: The first televised debate Tuesday night reflected both a high-stakes Senate GOP primary race that is fluid and a party that is struggling to define itself.

State House Speaker Thom Tillis, who has been leading in the polls and in fundraising, emerged from the debate largely unscathed despite frequent barbs from Cary physician Greg Brannon, his tea party opponent.

The other two candidates, Charlotte pastor Mark Harris and Heather Grant, a nurse practitioner in Wilkes County, chose not to engage their opponents in a debate that was surprisingly staid.

The winner by default was Tillis, who had the most to risk because he has an extensive public record to defend and only rarely did he have to do so. For the other candidates, particularly Brannon and Harris, it was a missed opportunity to build a strong case about why they, rather than Tillis, would make the better opponent to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the fall.

*** Read Rob’s full story here and get much – much – more from debate and a full wrap on North Carolina political news below in the Dome Morning Memo. ***

TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory will meet with a Medal of Honor nominee at 11 a.m. in Charlotte. Later in the day, at 2 p.m., McCrory will make an economic policy announcement in High Point.

Three legislative committees meet Wednesday at 1 p.m.: the panel looking at funeral and cemetery regulations will meet at 415 LOB; the committee on drones will meet in room 544 LOB; a House study group on education innovation meets in 643 LOB.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue is speaking at an education innovation summit at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr will speak to a Raleigh high school, attend a veterans event, visit a family medicine center and appear on WPTF radio at 4:30 p.m.

The Republican candidates for U.S. Senate will debate again in Raleigh on WRAL-TV at 7 p.m.

THE BIG STORY – BRANNON, TILLIS TUSSL E BUT NO MAJOR MOMENT EMERGES: Greg Brannon repeatedly challenged House Speaker Thom Tillis’ conservative credentials Tuesday while Tillis saved his punches for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the first debate of the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

The two Republicans dominated the debate with their back-and-forth as Mark Harris and Heather Grant sought to remain largely above the fray.

Despite the need to differentiate themselves, the four candidates found more common ground. All oppose the Affordable Care Act. All oppose medical marijuana. All want to eliminate federal agencies. All believe Russia is the biggest foreign policy threat. And all believe climate change is not a fact.

The debate represented the first time all four leading candidates traded jousts and showcased the ideological battle within the race and the broader Republican Party. Brannon cited the Constitution at least 15 times in the first dozen questions, while Tillis advocated a “practical conservatism” that encouraged bipartisan cooperation. Read more here.

See a photo gallery here, and don’t miss the palpable awkwardness of photo 22.

MORE DEBATE COVERAGE –

AP: The candidate in North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary with backing from the party’s Washington establishment came under little direct criticism Tuesday night as his top rivals had their first real chance to challenge him face to face. Read more here.

Politico: While mostly playing it safe, Tillis staked out a series of positions on the right that could hurt him in the general election: agreeing with the other three candidates on stage that climate change is not an established fact, opposing a federal minimum wage and suggesting that he might want to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. Read more here.

News & Record: On the issues, not much separates the top would-be Republican challengers of Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. Read more here.

IN FIRST REMARKS ON DEMOCRATIC ATTACK ADS, TILLIS TRIES TO EXPLAIN: One topic that didn’t arise in Tuesday’s debate – the severance packages House Speaker Thom Tillis gave to two legislative staffers who departed after acknowledging romantic affairs with lobbyists.

But in the spin room after the debate, Tillis repeatedly received the question about the apparent discrepancy in his statements on the situation. At the time, Tillis called them resignations, but in the TV ad, his campaign called them “firings.”

Asked to explain, he said, “In the professional world, people are given the opportunity to resign. Their resignation was forced. It was a sad chapter in their lives two years ago.”

Democrats suggested such language backtracked, if not contradicted, his TV ad.

SCENE FROM THE SPIN ROOM: Walking into the spin room, it was apparent who is getting the most attention in the race. A gaggle of national and state reporters surrounded Thom Tillis and later migrated directly to Greg Brannon, the two candidates in the spotlight Tuesday.

At first, Mark Harris stood alone and Heather Grant sat silently at the back of the room until the occasional reporter came to each of them.

A number of national reporters traveled to the debate, including AP national political reporter Chuck Babington (an N&O alum), Wall Street Journal political reporter Patrick O’Connor, Reuters’ Colleen Jenkins (a UNC alum based in Winston-Salem), a NY1 TV reporter and others.

DEBATE HIGHLIGHTS: Watching Brannon and Tillis try to avoid each other on stage ... Until they were sat next to each other ... None of the candidates believe climate change is a fact ... Brannon is the only one who does not support term limits ... The lightning round – good fun... Heather Grant’s reaction to a loaded question about the state of Republican Party: hands on her head ... Audience member’s questions ...

DEBATE LOWLIGHTS: No major tussles ... No major headline ... Mark Harris ... Moderator Tim Boyum did not wear a bow tie... Candidate responses limited to one minute ... No coffee allowed inside the debate ... The dozen plus emails Hagan’s campaign sent during the debate ... None of the candidates like eastern North Carolina barbecue ...

QUOTE OF THE DEBATE: Greg Brannon, a climate change skeptic: “God controls the climate.”

THE DEBATE IN 17 SECONDS: According to Buzzfeed, this is all that happened. See it here.

#NCSEN ---

NEW YORK TIMES POLL SHOWS POTENTIAL HAGAN AND TILLIS MATCHUP DEADLOCKED: Four Senate races in the South that will most likely determine control of Congress appear very close, with Republicans benefiting from more partisan intensity but a Democratic incumbent, once seen as highly vulnerable, holding a surprising edge, according to a New York Times Upshot/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

The survey underscores a favorable political environment overall for Republicans in Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas – states President Obama lost in 2012 and where his disapproval rating runs as high as 60 percent. ...

Senator Kay Hagan, Democrat of North Carolina, appears more endangered as she seeks a second term. She has the support of 42 percent of voters, and Thom Tillis, the Republican state House speaker and front-runner for his party’s nomination, is at 40 percent. Unlike Mr. Pryor, however, Sen. Hagan’s approval rating, 44 percent, is the same as her disapproval number. Read more here.

FACT-CHECKERS QUESTION TILLIS ‘FALSE’ AD: FactCheck.org has debunked claims made in a new ad from Thom Tillis’ campaign. The new Tillis ad calls another ad from the Senate Majority PAC “false” because it states that Tillis’ staffers involved in the scandal in his office “resigned.” (See above for more.)

The website determined that the PAC’s claims were, in fact, true.

“Based on news reports, we think the Democratic super PAC’s account is accurate,” the site said.

“The ad doesn’t say that Tillis didn’t initiate the action, either. We think most viewers would make the reasonable assumption that the boss – in this case Tillis – asked for the resignations or certainly willingly accepted them.” Read more here.

... AND MORE AGREE: From the Washington Post – A claim of ‘false’ when the ad is basically true. Read more here.

KAY HAGAN’S ATTACK AD ON THOM TILLIS EARNS “MOSTLY FALSE”: Politifact took a look at one line in Hagan’s new radio ad attacking Thom Tillis, and specifically looked at his comments on Obamacare. As we’ve noted on Dome before, it clipped just a phrase from the interview.

Here’s how Politifact broke it down: Hagan’s ad says Tillis “called Obamacare ‘a great idea.’ “That’s a severely edited quote. What Tillis actually said was that Obamacare is “a great idea that can’t be paid for.” Pulling out that tiny sound bite gives a highly misleading view of what Tillis said in the interview.

Hagan, for her part, is trying to argue that Tillis privately supports the very Obamacare he fiercely opposes in public. But to make that argument, she’s relying on extraordinarily thin evidence. We rate Hagan’s claim Mostly False.” Read more here.

BUZZFEED HEADLINE: 13 Things You Won’t Believe The Man Who Could Be North Carolina’s Next Senator Said. Read more here.

WORTH NOTING: Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum endorsed Republicans in four key Senate races Tuesday (Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan and Montana). Not on the list: North Carolina.

#NCPOL ---

THE OTHER BIG HEADLINE – Duke Energy claims removing coal ash may cost $10B, possibly increase user bills $20 a month: Duke Energy’s top North Carolina executive told state lawmakers Tuesday that digging up coal ash from disposal sites across the state and trucking the industrial waste to modern landfills, as critics are demanding, could cost as much as $10 billion.

A cheaper option, which leaves the coal ash in place at most sites, would cost at least $2 billion.

Duke officials are keeping a low profile about who will pay that cost, but a state regulator estimated the higher price tag cited Tuesday could cost North Carolina households more than $20 a month.

The Charlotte electric utility provided the financial estimate to the N.C. Environmental Review Commission at a public hearing to explore remediation options for its ash pits in the wake of a spill of 39,000 tons of coal ash sludge at Duke’s Dan River power plant in February. Read more here.

DEMOCRATIC STATE TREASURER JANET COWELL UNDER FIRE: A blistering report on the management of the state’s $87 billion pension fund commissioned by the State Employees Association of North Carolina reinforces and significantly expands the group’s long-standing criticisms of state Treasurer Janet Cowell.

The 147-page report takes a shotgun approach, leveling numerous accusations and complaints steeped in inflammatory language.

Among other things, the report, unveiled at a press conference at SEANC’s headquarters Tuesday morning, contends that Cowell has potentially violated numerous state and federal laws regarding investment disclosure; concealed $30 billion in investments from public view; and cost the pension fund $6.8 billion in returns over the past five years because “alternative” investments, such as hedge funds and real estate, have under-performed.

COWELL RESPONSE: Early Tuesday afternoon, the treasurer’s office issued a statement that said in its entirety: “Upon brief examination, there are a number of areas where the report is simply wrong. A full accounting of every dollar of the pension fund is provided in the annual report.” Read more here.

HEADLINE: Burr helping organize GOP fundraising committee. Read more here.

DEMOCRATIC PARTY ENDORSES JUDICIAL CANDIDATES: The List – Robin Hudson, Sam J. Ervin IV, Cheri Beasley, Lucy Inman, Mark Davis

BERGER JR. PICKS UP ANOTHER ENDORSEMENT: U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry is backing Phil Berger Jr. in the crowded 6th district Republican primary. “Phil’s proven record of conservative leadership in our state will serve him well from day one in Washington.”

ANOTHER ENDORSEMENT: NFIB endorsed eight Republican incumbents for Congress, including Walter Jones in the contested 3rd District race. Not on the list: a pick in the contested Republican primaries (7th and 6th districts), nor the U.S. Senate race.

QUICK HEADLINES –

Governor taps DOT board member, state senate candidate to lead ports board. Read more here.

Burr supports N.C. decisions on health care. Read more here.

12th District Democrats push higher minimum wage. Read more here.

Challenger Matt Arnold: ‘Time for a new set of eyes on issues’ in Bob Rucho’s District 39 seat. Read more here.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service