CARY — After a volunteer shift at her children’s school Thursday, Stacey McKown stood outside an early voting site distributing what she calls a “conservative voter’s guide.”
Like her red T-shirt and button, the flier says vote for Greg Brannon in the U.S. Senate race.
The 43-year-old accountant, who says she budgets her limited time like her money, started volunteering for the Republican’s campaign in September, averaging a few hours a week, making phone calls to voters and mailing fundraising letters.
McKown didn’t help a Republican candidate in 2012 but felt drawn to Brannon’s brand of conservative politics – one critics consider polarizing and detrimental to his electability.
“He’s a conservative,” she said outside the Cary polling location. “And I think we as a country need to go back to the conservative principles our country was founded on. We’ve gotten too far away from the Constitution, and that’s why we are seeing a decline in the country.”
More than the other GOP challengers, Brannon’s campaign is relying on activists and volunteers like McKown. From a dozen offices across the state, the campaign says hundreds are working polling locations and phone banks to turn out supporters.
FreedomWorks, a national tea party organizer based in Washington that endorsed Brannon, is helping to coordinate hundreds more who have distributed 70,000 door hangers, 22,000 yard signs and 4,000 bumper stickers to boost the campaign, spokeswoman Jackie Bodnar said.
“It’s unbelievable the level of dedication people are putting into this effort,” she said.
Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, appeared by phone on Glenn Beck’s radio program Thursday but didn’t hold any announced campaign events. None Wednesday either. His campaign said he had a full roster of patients.
“Elections are not won by politicians, not by campaigns but by grass roots,” Brannon said recently.
Whether Brannon’s supporters can compete with House Speaker Thom Tillis and his super PAC allies, who are airing millions of dollars worth of TV ads, is a chief question in the nationally watched race. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed Tillis on Thursday and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul will appear in Charlotte for a Brannon rally Monday.
Like McKown, Brannon’s supporters are motivated by his tea party values and desire to return the federal government to a constitutional foundation. They suggest he is more true to the cause than his main rivals Tillis and Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor.
“He’s a true conservative,” said Sharon Herrman, a 59-year-old X-ray technician, after voting Thursday for Brannon. “I believe he loves this country more than the other candidates. ... I believe he understands our Constitution better than anyone in our country.”
For as much as he fired up his core supporters, it might not be enough to win. “They sort of have the same fervor in 2008 and 2012 that Ron Paul had with his supporters,” said David McLennan, a political expert at William Peace University, referring to the former presidential candidate. “That’s a very small committed group – but they are small. They don’t represent the mainstream of the Republican Party.”
In his campaign, Brannon appeared to do little to reach beyond his base to the business community or even evangelical conservatives. “His message is very limited to tea partyers,” McLennan said. “This is not a winning strategy for him.”
Before he launched full time into the campaign a year ago, Brannon worked the tea party circuit as an activist and speaker on conservative issues, such as nullification, a doctrine that suggests states can reject federal laws they disagree with.
Brannon brought those issues into the Senate campaign, mentioning the latter in the final debate Monday. “The Supreme Court has no power to enforce their opinion. This goes back to state sovereignty,” he said, citing his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. “The state must say no to the federal government, to the Supreme Court, overriding their opinion.”
It’s not the first Brannon statement, whether from his activist days or the campaign, to turn heads. The popular website BuzzFeed, for instance, mocked Brannon in a list titled, “13 things you won’t believe the man who could be North Carolina’s next senator said.”
Critics have pointed to speeches and interviews in which Brannon:
• Compared abortion to the Holocaust.
• Argued that the food stamp program “enslaves people.” He continued, “When you’re at the behest of somebody else, you are actually in slavery to them. So you have to understand, we don’t need to have the government come in. That kind of charity does not make people freer.”
• Criticized the separation of religious beliefs from public schools as “insane,” adding “I wouldn’t have public schools.”
Brannon rejects the idea his views are too extreme. Campaign manager Reilly O’Neal said the examples are “a lot of distortions or stretches of things he said to fit a certain perspective.”
“All of these things,” O’Neal added, “fall under one scenario or thought process. We are a constitutional republic. Our country is based on what is written in the Constitution. … We are either going to follow it and use it as our contract or not.”