CHEROKEE — A month removed from an intense primary fight, Republicans sought to unite behind U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis at the party convention Saturday, even as the divisions remained visible.
Democrats met the same day in Raleigh to organize an effort to help re-elect U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, as the party seeks to retain one of its few statewide posts and recovers from a leadership dispute that crippled the party earlier this year.
In Cherokee, from a stage at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, Tillis said he appreciated the primary, saying “it gave us a great opportunity to talk about the things that we as conservatives believe in.”
The House speaker appealed directly to Republican activists for support, emphasizing the stakes in the race and the real target.
“But now is the time to bring the battle to Kay Hagan,” he said. “With a majority in the U.S. Senate, we can slow this president down. … We can begin to repair this nation.”
In Raleigh, Hagan touted her record in Washington, not mentioning President Barack Obama once, instead attempting to link Tillis to the outside groups helping to boost his campaign.
“That’s why the stakes are so high this year,” she said. “It’s a clear contrast – my work to put North Carolina first or Mr. Tillis who has shown he will pick the special interests over our families every single time.”
The top-ticket race took center stage at both events because North Carolina’s contest is among a handful that could tip the partisan balance of the U.S. Senate.
More attention focused on Republicans, given the primary battle and the convention location. The party amended its platform to soften the language on gambling, as 4,000 glimmering slot machines whirled one floor below.
The gambling facility, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is thriving after the Republican-led legislature and former Gov. Bev Perdue approved a new gambling compact in 2011 that allowed live table games and video poker. The tribe has given about $1.3 million to Republican and Democratic candidates since 2004.
Brannon a no-show
Some Republicans cited the casino and remote location for not attending. A number of other prominent Republicans – including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and members of the state’s congressional delegation – opted to attend a fundraiser for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner in Greensboro.
Republican Party officials said only a handful of locations in the state can accommodate a meeting for roughly 1,000 people. About 630 attended the first convention in the western part of the state in recent years.
Saturday’s event drew two 2016 presidential contenders – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – who reinforced how important the primary is to the power struggle in Washington.
“Electing (Tillis) to the U.S. Senate means we can retire Harry Reid as the majority leader,” Jindal said at a luncheon event.
Before Tillis spoke, four of his former rivals took the microphone to endorse him, but his chief challenger, tea party favorite Greg Brannon, did not attend.
The fault lines from the race were visible throughout the convention.
“As for the U.S. Senate race, I think right now it’s a tossup because Thom Tillis only got 45 percent of the vote,” said Bobby Crawford, a 28-year-old Wilmington delegate. “I think really he has to get the tea party and the libertarian wings of the party on board with him.”
Like Crawford, Gates County delegate Dede Hill supported Brannon. Both said they will vote for Tillis but not actively campaign for him.
“Kay’s got to go,” Hill said, standing near one of the many “Congratulations Thom Tillis” signs at the convention. “I will honor the Republican Party, but I will not break my back to get him elected.”
Other Republicans voiced strong support for Tillis. “We took a vote at our district convention ... to support whoever won,” said Jennifer Conner of Macon County. “I think everybody is so on board it’s not even a concern.”
In an interview, Tillis said his campaign is reaching out to the supporters of other candidates. “All we have to do is make them aware of our record,” he said. “I think it’s an agenda that mirrors very much what we think we need to do in Washington. And I think at the end of the day the greatest unifier is the failure of Kay Hagan.”
Across the state in Raleigh, Democrats approved resolutions to support the “Moral Monday” protests and congratulate the Obama administration for a successful roll-out of the federal health care law.
Held at the Raleigh Convention Center, the convention attracted Democrats from 75 of the 100 counties. Organizers said between 600 and 700 people attended.
Later in the evening, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas congresswoman, addressed about 380 Democrats at the party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
Democrats expressed cautious optimism about their chances in November, saying the key is to educate voters about Tillis’ record in the House, such as votes to revoke tenure for teachers, lifting the moratorium on fracking and refusing to expand Medicaid health coverage for low-income residents.
“I think independent voters will be scared of what could happen at the national level because of what they’ve seen happen at the state level,” said David Conner of Cary.
Education was the first issue mentioned by Attorney General Roy Cooper in his speech. Cooper is exploring a bid for governor in 2016.
“People are paying attention to what’s happening in Raleigh,” he said. “They’re giving teachers more students than they can teach, and less pay and respect than they deserve.”
Saying the state had been “hijacked by extremists,” Cooper urged the crowd to elect Hagan and looked ahead to 2016 in saying it would be “the battle for the heart and soul of North Carolina.”