RESEARCH TRIANGE PARK — Taking a more aggressive approach, Republican Mark Harris made the case in the final U.S. Senate primary debate Monday that his two rivals are unelectable in November because of their “political baggage.”
The Charlotte pastor criticized Greg Brannon for not supporting Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. And he highlighted a recent civil verdict against Brannon that found he owed $500,000 for misleading investors in a technology company he helped start.
Harris pivoted later to hit House state Speaker Thom Tillis for pushing political appointees who were generous campaign contributors. And he accused Tillis of undermining the effort to approve a constitutional ban on gay marriage by saying it would likely be repealed in 20 years.
“It is so critical that we have someone that is electable,” he said minutes into the debate. “There are two individuals on this platform tonight that carry with them baggage that I believe Kay Hagan will use to rip them apart.”
The attacks began in answering the first question and ended in Harris’ final statement, bookending a debate that featured more contentious moments than two earlier forums. For Harris, it represented a last-minute effort to energize a campaign that polls repeatedly show lagging behind Tillis and Brannon.
Harris compared Tillis to Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom many consider a moderate, and Brannon to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party lawmaker, as he advocated for a Ronald Reagan approach. “Many have said this primary is for the heart and soul of the North Carolina GOP, and it’s for the heart and soul of the national GOP,” he said.
But even with the pointed language, the hourlong debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park revealed more points of agreement on major issues, particularly foreign policy, and all repeated their attacks on Hagan and President Barack Obama. The debate also did little to shake Brannon or Tillis, who reiterated his support for the marriage ban and emphasized his accomplishments in the General Assembly.
“Being conservative is not something you say; it’s something you do,” Tillis said, repeating a refrain from his latest television commercial. “And I’ve done it consistently in Raleigh, and I’ll do it consistently in Washington.”
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician backed by Paul, joined the focus on Tillis, questioning his claims of a conservative record and suggesting that as a state lawmaker Tillis should have ignored federal laws because they violated the Constitution. Brannon supports the “nullification” movement to assert state authority.
He cited a Tillis statement in 2013 calling the federal health care law a “great idea that can’t be paid for” and noted a measure approved by the state House in 2011 to advance a state-based insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act. The effort died, and the House later reversed course.
“I think there is a clear distinction between myself and Thom,” Brannon said.
Tillis defended his record, highlighting legislative efforts in 2013 to block the health care law in North Carolina, including a law to prevent a state exchange and deny the expansion of Medicaid to low-income residents.
The fourth candidate in the debate, Heather Grant, stayed out of the fray after pledging to run an attack-free campaign.
With Tillis leading in fundraising and polls, Harris and Brannon are trying to force a runoff and keep Tillis from the 40 percent mark needed to win the primary outright.
But Tillis continues to get establishment Republican support. Gov. Pat McCrory and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are expected to endorse him at a Tuesday event in Raleigh. Earlier this month, McCrory said Tillis represented the best chance for Republicans to win the seat this fall.
Tillis has shifted strategies in the final weeks of the campaign to pull voters in his direction, attacking Brannon in a mailer and debuting a television ad designed to appeal to social conservatives aligned with Harris.
“I think (reaching 40 percent) is everything,” said Francis De Luca, the president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative advocacy organization that supported much of the Republican legislative agenda. “They don’t want to spend the next six weeks raising money for another primary campaign when very few people are going to vote.”
The final debate explored new ground with multiple foreign policy questions, though it did little to separate the candidates. All advocated tougher stances against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and tougher sanctions on Iran.
“We must be willing to have (military action) on the table,” Harris said. “The rebuilding of the former Soviet Union is in the national interest of the United States to stop it.”
Referring to Russia, Tillis supported pulling lessons from the Cold War playbook and any measures necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
“America needs to continue to be that nation that the world looks to to defend freedom-loving people across the globe,” he said. “ ... We must recognize as the lone superpower that it comes with a responsibility to protect our border and our allies’ borders.”
Brannon took a similar rigid stance, saying the key in Russia is to develop more domestic energy sources and advocating support for protecting Israel from Iran. “America’s military is crucial,” he said.