Election 2014: GOP Senate primary

Emphasizing a personal approach, GOP Senate hopeful Mark Harris converts voters one at a time

jfrank@newsobserver.comMay 2, 2014 

— Before Republican Mark Harris could say a word about his U.S. Senate campaign, Dick Kuehl told him he couldn’t win.

A member of the local tea party, Kuehl said he was supporting rival Greg Brannon against House Speaker Thom Tillis, whom he considered the front-runner. “I don’t think you can make the runoff,” Kuehl told Harris.

But 45 minutes later, after a remarkably forthright conversation with Harris, Kuehl left with a campaign yard sign, ostensibly for his wife. “I wish I would have heard you earlier,” he said as the two men stood to shake hands.

Harris, a Baptist pastor, is leading a last-minute political revival that emphasizes an old-school style of retail politicking that makes him one of most active candidates in the race.

“Wherever we go and take our message and have the opportunity to share it, it resonates with people,” said Harris in an interview.

Like Kuehl, many of the voters Harris met in his three-county, 200-plus mile tour Friday, didn’t know him before the televised primary debates in late April. The first-time candidate is just now getting their attention, but it may be too late with the election Tuesday.

Harris trails in fundraising and polls behind Tillis, whose deep campaign pockets and favored status among big names in Washington is fueling millions in television ads to get his message to voters.

If no candidate tops 40 percent in the primary vote, the top two will go to a July runoff.

“Obviously, to some large extent what Harris is doing is an indicator of weakness and a function of his limited resources,” said Andy Taylor, an N.C. State University political science professor. “But given that turnout will be low on Tuesday, shaking hands with party activists and other likely voters is as good a strategy available to him as any.”

Harris acknowledges a handshake campaign isn’t enough to win. He even credits his TV commercial, aired sparingly compared to Tillis’ effort, for boosting his name recognition among voters.

“I guess this election ultimately is going to tell us something about North Carolina politics,” said Harris, a lifelong political watcher who favors the pre-digital campaign age. “Has it changed to where you can hide out, just try to raise money so that you can, from a controlled environment, go on the airwaves ... and turn the hearts and minds of North Carolinians? Or are the people of North Carolina going to continue to demand the opportunity to meet and get to know the candidates?”

Top issue: Character

Harris is the only top-tier candidate to take a leave of absence from his job to campaign full time. He entered the race in October, but it took months to get traction. Even his schedule Friday – which included a meet-and-greet event and fundraiser – spoke to his still-budding effort.

With his wife, Beth, at his side, Harris left his hometown of Charlotte early Friday to visit an early voting location in Lillington, 30 miles south of Raleigh, at 9:30 a.m.

A local pastor led a dozen supporters at the event in prayer and then Harris spoke, emphasizing “character” as the top issue, not policy matters.

In speaking with a local reporter, though, Harris went further than before in criticizing his two rivals’ character, mentioning “political baggage” on their record.

Harris cited a civil judgment that found Brannon misled two investors in his technology company and owes nearly $500,000 in restitution, calling it “a serious issue.” And he said Tillis would be vulnerable against Democrat Kay Hagan in November because of a scandal involving his legislative aides’ extramarital affairs with lobbyists and questions about “pay-to-play” politics involving the election of members to the UNC governing board.

“I’ve got a copy of the July 27, 2013, Charlotte Observer (article) in my car if you want to take a look at it,” he told the reporter, referring to an article about Tillis and the UNC board.

Brannon is appealing the civil judgment, and Tillis rejects the attacks against him.

Lightly attended events

An hour later in Pinehurst, the meet-and-greet at town hall busted when only Kuehl and two other local party officials who helped organize the event attended. It allowed Kuehl to get his one-on-one, in which Harris said the party needed to nominate a strong conservative. “If we try to run Hagan-lite,” he said, referring to Tillis, “versus Hagan there won’t be the energy in the party to coalesce around a candidate and beat Hagan.”

By 3 p.m., Harris was at an early voting site in Democratic-heavy Fayetteville, his 17th in nine days.

Republican Dorothy Cherry, a 74-year-old retiree from Stedman, who heard Harris preach years ago at her church, came to shake his hand. “I know he’s a Christian,” she said later, when asked why she was supporting him. “My first thing is he has the qualities (needed), he has a good reputation and he believes in God. I just think this country needs God in their lives.”

Pointing to Cherry as an example, Harris said he is picking up voters one by one at the polls with his personal touch.

“Folks are shocked,” he said, “that the actual Senate candidate is out there shaking their hands.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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