Mark Harris, the '14 Senate Race, and the GOP's Three-Wing Circus

Have you heard the one about the business consultant, the tea partier and the preacher who ran for Senate in North Carolina?


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Mark Harris for Senate campaign

The race for Kay Hagan’s U.S. Senate seat will be one of the most contentious and fascinating in the country next year — not only because of its strategic value but because the Republican primary field reflects so precisely the dynamics of the party as a whole.

Your three main candidates: N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, a former IT consultant with corporate connections and contributors throughout the state; Dr. Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, the tea party’s preferred candidate; and the Rev. Mark Harris, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Charlotte, whom the Observer’s Tim Funk profiled over the weekend.

Harris is the evangelical guy, of course. In the Observer story, he speaks of the need for “good and Godly people” in politics and the Spirit convincing him to run, the Spirit apparently possessing a seasoned hack’s feel for the electoral mood. He’s got the evangelical illogic thing down square. He talks in one breath about exercising the power of the state to prevent same-sex marriage and abortion and in the next about “a federal government that continues to encroach into daily lives” without bothering to acknowledge, much less think about, the contradiction. He’ll be great.

I doubt he’ll win. Tillis has too much name recognition and access to too much corporate money. But what he and Brannon will do, in the months leading up to the May primary, is shove the boundaries of the debate as far as possible to the right and prevent Tillis — who’s perceived, amazingly, as something of a moderate by the party’s extreme right wing — from being anything less than a full-blown hard-core conservative.

Tillis, Brannon and Harris align perfectly with Democracy Corps’ recent report on the three distinct wings in the modern-day GOP. Essentially, it’s the coalition that joined in the late 1970s to elect Ronald Reagan — corporate, big-business conservatives and evangelicals — plus the meth hit of the tea party starting in 2009. Democracy Corps, the Democratic-leaning nonprofit and think tank co-founded by James Carville, calls fiscal conservatives “moderates.” They aren’t, not really. But the rest of it is pretty revealing:

[T]his is a deeply divided base. Moderates are a quarter of those who identify Republican, and they are very conscious of their discomfort with other parts of the party base. Their distance begins with social issues, like gay marriage and homosexuality, but it is also evident on immigration and climate change. Fiscal conservatives feel isolated in the party.

Evangelicals who feel most threatened by trends embrace the Tea Party because they are the ones who are fighting back. They are very in tune politically, but the Tea Party base is very libertarian and not very interested in fighting gay marriage.  

Republicans shut down the government to defund or delay Obamacare. This goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle. They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.

And while few explicitly talk about Obama in racial terms, the base supporters are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities. Race remains very much alive in the politics of the Republican Party.

These are strong common currents in the Republican base, but the thinking and passions are very distinct and telling among the key blocs — and those have consequences for those who seek to lead …

Since his ascent to the House speakership in 2011, Tillis has occasionally shown a willingness to recognize the existence of political opponents, a habit that irks his more hard-line Republican colleagues. Oh, he’s conservative to the core, but he’s not a spittle-sprayer; that tactic doesn’t work in the boardroom.

That’s why the campaign leading up to May will be so instructive: If North Carolina is a pilot project for the national Republican Party, and the 2014 Senate race is one of the most important in the country, the Tillis-Brannon-Harris primary should tell us a lot about where this party’s going — and how far it’s willing to push itself to the closed end of the political road.

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Charlotte had a Democratic mayor that got rebuffed by a Democratic majority council before the president appointed him to his cabinet; a former mayor in the Governor's Mansion after an oh-for-infinity streak; membership in a state that sees Charlotte as, well, another state; a neighboring state where public officials do very, very silly things (and sometimes go "hiking"); and a county commissioner who specializes in insulting constituents yet can't seem to get himself unelected. Sounds interesting to me, so I write about it and other matters public. Hashtag #nestpoke. You want to yell at me, email nestpoke@gmail.com.

About Greg Lacour

Greg Lacour spent nearly 10 years as a reporter for the Observer, where he covered Charlotte and Mecklenburg County government, including the infamous Nick Mackey for Sheriff farce of 2007-08, which made him simultaneously homesick for his hometown of New Orleans and hopeful that Charlotte might yet attain "world-class" status. He has written several features for this magazine and took part in the Hurricane Katrina coverage that won The Sun Herald of Biloxi/Gulfport, Miss., another former employer, a Pulitzer Prize. Lacour is single and lives in NoDa.

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