Republicans Look to Underdog in North Carolina

Rev. Mark Harris led a successful fight against gay marriage in the state. Now he’s looking to upset the state’s sitting senator.

Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. 
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
Sept. 23, 2013, 4:08 a.m.

The last time Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and na­tion­al Demo­crats took on North Car­o­lina Rev. Mark Har­ris, he was help­ing the ef­fort to amend the state con­sti­tu­tion to define mar­riage as between one man and one wo­man. Demo­crats lost that fight, badly.

Now Har­ris is at­tempt­ing to un­seat Hagan in the Sen­ate, vy­ing to win the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion with as­sist­ance from his band of grass­roots al­lies. He an­nounced his Sen­ate can­did­acy this month, and has the po­ten­tial to give state Sen­ate House Speak­er Thom Tillis a ser­i­ous chal­lenge in the Re­pub­lic­an primary.

Har­ris has sent early sig­nals that he’ll build his Sen­ate cam­paign in­fra­struc­ture out of that same grass­roots or­gan­iz­a­tion that fought against gay mar­riage. He has already brought on Re­pub­lic­an act­iv­ist Mary Frances For­res­t­er, who spear­headed the Amend­ment One cam­paign, and Rachel Lee Brady, who worked for the pro-Amend­ment One group Vote Mar­riage NC. That could be help­ful in in­ject­ing cash in­to the re­l­at­ively un­known first-time can­did­ate’s cam­paign and could help pro­pel Har­ris to the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion.

Har­ris led the suc­cess­ful move­ment to pass North Car­o­lina’s Amend­ment One last year. The key to that vic­tory was that the group fo­cused on churches, in­ject­ing the amend­ment in­to ser­mons and reach­ing out to voters in the pews, ac­cord­ing to Jeremy Kennedy, who led the op­pos­i­tion to Amend­ment One. And it was ef­fect­ive. Amend­ment One passed by more than a 20-point mar­gin, des­pite the op­pos­i­tion of Hagan, Pres. Obama, former Pres. Bill Clin­ton and a vari­ety of state and na­tion­al Demo­crats. Amend­ment One earned a sol­id 61 per­cent of the vote in a state that Obama lost by just two points that year.

But the gen­er­al elec­tion is a dif­fer­ent ques­tion. A more di­verse elect­or­ate and new polling in the state make it look un­likely that Har­ris and his net­work of re­li­gious con­ser­vat­ives will be as suc­cess­ful in next year’s Sen­ate race.

Amend­ment One was on the bal­lot dur­ing last year’s May primary, when there were no com­pet­it­ive statewide con­tests, not the gen­er­al elec­tion when the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign and a heated gubernat­ori­al race boos­ted turnout. As is typ­ic­al of primary elec­tions, the elect­or­ate was much older and much more con­ser­vat­ive than in a typ­ic­al gen­er­al elec­tion, but the ex­cite­ment around Amend­ment One ex­acer­bated those dif­fer­ences. Over three-quar­ters of voters in the primary elec­tion were over the age of 50, ac­cord­ing to Lake Re­search Part­ners, a Demo­crat­ic polling or­gan­iz­a­tion that worked with same-sex mar­riage pro­ponents dur­ing the primary. That elect­or­ate was “enorm­ously” help­ful in get­ting Amend­ment One passed, poll­ster Celinda Lake said, and could be a boon to Har­ris in get­ting through the Re­pub­lic­an primary.

Har­ris’ cam­paign con­sult­ant Tom Per­due told Hot­line On Call earli­er this month that the rev­er­end won’t be run­ning away from his views on so­cial is­sues in the Sen­ate con­test, but will place a much high­er premi­um on eco­nom­ic is­sues, par­tic­u­larly in a gen­er­al elec­tion con­test against Hagan.

Har­ris’ biggest com­pet­i­tion for the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion comes from Tillis, who is bet­ter-known, but doesn’t have much of a fol­low­ing among so­cial con­ser­vat­ives, leav­ing a big open­ing for Har­ris among the state’s siz­able church-go­ing GOP pop­u­la­tion. And if the Amend­ment One fight last year proved any­thing, it’s that so­cial is­sues like same-sex mar­riage can spur primary voters to the polls. With the mar­riage amend­ment as the only com­pet­it­ive is­sue on the bal­lot, North Car­o­lina ex­per­i­enced a his­tor­ic 35 per­cent turnout, sur­pass­ing totals from 2008, when there was a com­pet­it­ive pres­id­en­tial elec­tion on the primary bal­lot.

And while turnout is likely to be even high­er in Novem­ber of 2014 (it hit 44 per­cent in 2010, dur­ing the last midterm Sen­ate con­test), the elect­or­ate will be much young­er and fea­ture a broad­er ar­ray of voters. And that’s bad news for Har­ris, if he emerges as the nom­in­ee.

The broad­er North Car­o­lina elect­or­ate ap­pears to be much more con­flic­ted about same-sex mar­riage than last year’s Amend­ment One vic­tory would in­dic­ate. A new Elon Uni­versity poll out Fri­day shows that North Car­o­lina voters are re­l­at­ively split on the is­sue, with 47 per­cent say­ing they op­pose gay mar­riage and 43 per­cent voicing sup­port (the poll 3.7 per­cent has a mar­gin of er­ror), a sign that Har­ris’ ground or­gan­iz­a­tion will face more dif­fi­culty court­ing gen­er­al elec­tion voters than they did in win­ning over last year’s primary elect­or­ate.

The Elon poll also took a look at voters’ views on oth­er so­cial is­sues. On abor­tion, voters are sim­il­arly mixed, with 45 per­cent say­ing they be­lieve the state should make ac­cess to abor­tions more dif­fi­cult and 41 per­cent say­ing ac­cess should be less dif­fi­cult. Neither is­sue topped voters’ lists of the is­sues that they’re most con­cerned about right now. When asked about the most im­port­ant is­sue fa­cing the coun­try, not one per­son men­tioned gay mar­riage or abor­tion, al­though about 4 per­cent of re­spond­ents said “val­ues” or “fam­ily” and an­oth­er one per­cent said “God” or “re­li­gion.”

But there is also some good news for Har­ris. 46 per­cent of North Car­o­lina voters sur­veyed said they at­tend church al­most every week and 48 per­cent iden­ti­fied them­selves as born-again Chris­ti­ans. Those could be ripe areas of sup­port for a Baptist preach­er from Char­lotte, par­tic­u­larly one whose team is already es­tab­lished in churches across the state.

Since North Car­o­lina voters are di­vided on gay mar­riage, the is­sue is just as volat­ile for Hagan, who came out in fa­vor of same-sex mar­riage earli­er this year. But as a first-time can­did­ate, Har­ris doesn’t have much of a re­cord for Demo­crats to dig through and his com­ments on ho­mo­sexu­al­ity in a series of tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ap­pear­ances dur­ing the Amend­ment One fight could provide fod­der for op­pos­i­tion re­search­ers eager to pro­tect a vul­ner­able Hagan.

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