The N.C. Republican Party has elected Hasan Harnett as its new chairman Saturday, naming a successor to Claude Pope.
Harnett, a businessman and author from Concord, served as campaign manager for GOP congressional candidate Vince Coakley last year. Coakley lost to Democrat Alma Adams in a strongly Democratic district.
Harnett, who will be the state party’s first black chairman, says he can expand the GOP’s appeal to minorities.
“If you can raise money in that district, you can raise money anywhere,” Harnett said. “We need a bold, reinvigorated Republican Party who listens to the grass roots. Together we will win in 2016 because teamwork makes the dream work.”
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The election of Harnett appears to be a rebuke of the party leadership’s choice, Gastonia attorney Craig Collins.
Collins had the endorsement of nearly all major Republican state leaders: Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.
Collins was nominated by the House Rules chairman, David Lewis of Dunn.
“We cannot afford to hand the keys to the GOP headquarters to someone who is inexperienced and untested,” Lewis said. “We simply must elect a chairman who has the most grass-roots experience. Craig Collins is a lifelong conservative. Craig has spent the last 30 years in the trenches fighting for our conservative values.”
A third candidate, A.J. Daoud, withdrew from the race shortly before the vote. He is a former candidate for N.C. secretary of state.
Harnett says he made 4,000 phone calls to fellow Republicans since he began his campaign in April. When he entered the convention hall Saturday, he was accompanied by a drum line.
“I am living the American dream, and the Republican Party is the only party that can keep that dream alive,” he said.
While they hadn’t initially supported Harnett, both McCrory and Berger issued statements late Saturday congratulating him. Berger called it a “history-making election” because Harnett is the party’s first black chairman.
“I look forward to working with Chairman Harnett to protect our majority and elect Republicans up and down the ticket in 2016,” Berger said.
The party also elected a new vice chair, Michele Nix of Lenoir County. Harnett and Nix were backed by the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group representing the Tea Party and Libertarian wings of the party.
McCrory blasts ‘liberal elite’
Speaking to the convention before the vote Saturday, McCrory steered clear of social issues that have divided his party in recent weeks.
Instead, McCrory’s 30-minute speech focused on the state’s economic successes under Republican leadership, and he reserved his criticism for “the liberal elite who increased our taxes and gave us big government.”
Democrats, he said, “have deep-pocketed allies in Washington, California and even overseas, and they’re working to stop the Carolina Comeback.”
Some political observers had questioned how McCrory would be received by hundreds of GOP faithful – one week after he vetoed two bills that put him at odds with fellow Republicans in the legislature.
But McCrory took the stage to loud cheers, and his speech didn’t touch on any of those topics: an exemption for magistrates performing marriages and a workplace bill opponents have labeled “ag-gag.”
“There’s a very important distinction between us and the liberals: We’re not afraid to have disagreements about the best way forward,” he said.
McCrory’s speech stuck to areas where most Republicans agree: a smaller government, school choice, veterans issues and energy independence.
“North Carolina needs to participate in our energy independence,” he said, calling for oil and gas drilling off the coast. “We need to get off the sidelines and produce energy right here in North Carolina.”
The governor also said the state needs to keep its voter ID laws, despite legal challenges from groups on the left. “We need to continue to support voter ID right here in North Carolina and not be ashamed of it,” he said.
‘Failed our veterans’
Tillis also spoke at the convention and addressed federal and foreign affairs issues. He defended his involvement in a letter sent to the Iranian government voicing concerns about President Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiations.
“I’d sign it again today and maybe we should,” he said of the letter. “We need to make it very clear to the Iranian leaders that they’re wrong.”
And Tillis had strong words about problems at Veterans Affairs facilities. “We have failed our veterans,” he said. “The problem with the VA has very little to do with the VA health clinics. It has to do with the bureaucracy that is preventing these health care providers from doing what they need to serve veterans.”
Tillis briefly addressed the close race for N.C. Republican Party chairman, calling for party unity. “Treat it like a good football game,” he said of the election. “When the decision’s done, let’s all come back together as a Republican Party.”