Tillis boasts big GOP fundraising lead in Senate race, but still lags well behind Hagan

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comOctober 25, 2013 

GOP congressional leaders have helped North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis to a wide fundraising lead over his Republican U.S. Senate challengers.

But the Cornelius Republican still lags far behind incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Tillis has raised nearly $829,000 through September. That includes $250,000 he lent his campaign on the last day of the filing period.

Greg Brannon, a Cary physician and tea party favorite, has raised $273,000. The Rev. Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who formally entered the race this month, raised $128,000. Finance reports for another announced candidate, Wilkes County nurse Heather Grant, were unavailable.

Hagan, who has raised nearly $7.6 million, will be a top target next year for Republicans, who must pick up six seats for control of the Senate. She’s one of seven Democratic senators in states carried last year by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Tillis got a boost from Washington’s top Republicans.

House Speaker John Boehner’s political action committee gave him $10,000. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC gave $5,000. Three other Republican senators also contributed.

Tillis also has been endorsed by GOP strategist Karl Rove, an adviser to former President George W. Bush. Through his American Crossroads super PAC, Rove has supported mainstream GOP candidates. He plans to attend fundraisers for Tillis next month.

Looking for right candidate

Rove and other GOP leaders are looking for the candidate they think has the best chance against Hagan.

“What Speaker Tillis is focused on is defeating Kay Hagan,” said Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw. “We believe his record of conservative results appeals to everybody in the Republican Party as well as independents.”

But recently Tillis has taken positions at odds with his Washington supporters. This month he said he would have voted against the compromise that extended the federal debt ceiling and ended the government shutdown.

“Kicking the can down the road does not solve any problems, it only creates a bigger mess,” Tillis said. “… I could not have supported this legislation.”

The bill passed the Senate 81-18. North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr supported it. So did Boehner, McConnell and the three other GOP senators who contributed to Tillis’ campaign.

Rove warned that a shutdown would hurt his party, particularly among independents.

A survey this month by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning Raleigh firm, found that North Carolina Republicans supported the shutdown 58 percent to 32 percent. The same poll found that 62 percent of Republicans had a favorable view of the tea party.

“(Tillis) is walking a very fine line,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “He is seen as kind of the establishment candidate and the money coming in (shows) that ... But that money can only go so far.

“What Tillis has to do is appeal to the faction that also supported the shutdown, and that’s the grass roots, the hard core of the Republican base … He has to be singing the praises of the people that are going to show up next May.”

Reilly O’Neal, a spokesman for Brannon, said Tillis “is trying to have it both ways.”

“It’s an attempt to pander to the conservative base of the party that supported (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz and (Utah Sen.) Mike Lee’s effort to defund Obamacare.”

Brannon has been endorsed by GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a leader of the push to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Like Tillis, Brannon and Harris also have said they would have voted against the bill that reopened the government.

Christian conservative base

Harris, outgoing president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, appears to have raised much of his money among a base of Christian conservatives.

“The brand of conservative Christian is one that transcends the entire Republican Party as well as unaffiliated and some Democratic voters,” said Mike Rusher, Harris’ campaign manager.

According to Democracy Corps, a Democratic research firm, only a quarter of Republican voters are “moderates” while evangelicals and tea partiers make up more than half the party’s voters.

As for Hagan’s current fundraising edge, Shaw, the Tillis spokesman, said he’s not worried.

At roughly the same point before her first election in 2008, Hagan had raised less than $600,000. Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole – who was ultimately defeated by Hagan – had a war chest of $7.3 million.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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