Midtown Raleigh News

Second GOP Senate debate does little to shift race

From left, candidates N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, Heather Grant, Dr. Greg Brannon and Rev. Mark Harris get ready to debate Wednesday during the second debate for candidates running in North Carolina's Republican U.S. Senate primary at WRAL's studio in Raleigh.
From left, candidates N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, Heather Grant, Dr. Greg Brannon and Rev. Mark Harris get ready to debate Wednesday during the second debate for candidates running in North Carolina's Republican U.S. Senate primary at WRAL's studio in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Sticking to their campaign scripts, Republican candidates for U.S. Senate continued Wednesday to take hard-line positions on climate change and immigration, even as they struggled to differentiate themselves in their second debate in two days.

The candidates continued to dispute global warming, touching on a hot button issue from the previous night’s debate and disputing what an overwhelming majority of scientists believe is already happening.

Thom Tillis called it “false science.” Heather Grant called climate “cyclical.” Mark Harris said the federal government should not address it. And Greg Brannon said human beings do not contribute to warming. “The literature is so clear on this,” said Brannon, a Cary obstetrician and tea party candidate.

More than reinforce the candidate’s stances, the back-to-back debates did little to shift the order in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, as the fast-paced, 30-minute contest at WRAL-TV in Raleigh touched only five issues and revealed little new ground.

The candidates said afterward that the format frustrated them with limited response times.

The candidates didn’t criticize their rivals by name once in the entire debate, a contrast from the first contest, in which Brannon questioned Tillis’ conservative merits on a number of issues.

Tillis once again focused on blasting Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. The House speaker also highlighted his accomplishments since Republicans took control of the statehouse in 2011, saying he led an effort to cut regulations and create jobs.

Tillis leads in polling and fund raising, and his rivals are trying to force him into a July 15 runoff. Tillis needs 40 percent of votes on May 6 to avoid the extra contest.

Brannon got bump

A Survey USA poll conducted for Time Warner Cable News after the first debate showed Tillis maintaining his position, with Brannon gaining ground and Harris slipping.

In the second debate, Chris Sinclair, a Republican political strategist, said Tillis broke away from the pack. “He came across as a candidate who, if elected, would go to Washington and solve problems,” said Sinclair, who is not working for any of the U.S. Senate candidates.

The third and final debate hosted by UNC-TV is scheduled for Monday. It will give Brannon and Harris a final chance to raise questions about Tillis. Grant has said she won’t attack her rivals.

“I don’t think they differentiated themselves from one another,” said David B. McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. “If you’re really undecided, it would be hard to look at this and say the other three brought Tillis down a peg. Tillis didn’t seal the deal for May 6, but it’s going to move in that direction.”

Pulling to the right

If anything, both debates pulled the Republican candidates further to the right and opened them to Democratic attacks in November.

“Once again, the Republican candidates failed to mention the middle class even once and confirmed that Kay is the only candidate in this race who will put North Carolina families first,” said Sadie Weiner, Hagan’s campaign spokeswoman, after the debate.

Tillis appeared to try to nuance a number of his answers. For instance on climate change, he told reporters after the debate that “of course the climate changes. The questions are the sources and then the solutions and whether or not we should do anything.”

For the second night in a row, two issues simmering in the race were not addressed: the questionable taxpayer-funded severance package Tillis gave two legislative staffers who had affairs with lobbyists in 2012 and a civil judgment against Brannon finding that he owed nearly $500,000 to two investors for misleading them about his startup company’s prospects.

In his closing statement, Harris again emphasized a candidate’s “character” as a top issue in the race, but did//did not// list his opponents’ political baggage.

On immigration

On immigration, all the candidates except Tillis argued that immigrants in the United States illegally should be deported. Tillis did not answer the question, and his campaign did not immediately respond to a follow-up question.

“They are criminals,” said Grant, a Wilkesboro nurse. “We should not reward them in any way, shape, form or fashion.”

All the candidates emphasized the need to secure the nation’s borders. “There is no other conversation to have about immigration until you No. 1, secure the border, then No. 2, enforce the laws that we currently have in place,” said Harris, a Charlotte pastor.

Tillis argued that deportation needs to focus on the “15 percent of that population that is bad actors.”

Addressing reporters after the debate, Brannon sought to poke Tillis with a line he didn’t get to deliver, criticizing legislative leaders for failing to repeal a renewable energy mandate in North Carolina that is hurting business.

North Carolina lawmakers approved a bipartisan measure in 2007, when Democrats were in control, to require at least 12.5 percent of retail power sales by electric utilities come from renewables and energy efficiency programs by 2021.

Efforts to repeal the measure – which environmentalists credit with fueling the state’s burgeoning solar power industry – have failed in recent years. Tillis said he expects that to change. He said he supports a repeal, even as he cautioned against moving too fast.

“The problem is, it’s the law, and you can’t just ... all of a sudden repeal it without having an orderly exit,” he said after the debate. “And we’ll be having an orderly exit, and I’m optimistic that the next speaker will probably oversee its repeal.”

Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.