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Sen. Hagan, Tillis Begin Campaign Inveighing Against Rival’s State Legislative Record

By John Frank, The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

RALEIGH, NC—Instead of talking Washington, Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan launched the U.S. Senate race Wednesday with attacks on each other’s state legislative records.

A day after winning the Republican primary, Tillis criticized Hagan’s five terms in the state Senate more than her five years in the U.S. Senate, saying she added sales taxes and regulations in her tenure as a state budget writer.

He called it a clear contrast with his record since he became House speaker in 2011, touting tax-cutting legislation under the Republican leadership and efforts to ease rules on businesses.

“If you take a look at what we’ve done over the last three years, much of what I’ve been doing is cleaning up Kay Hagan’s mess in North Carolina,” Tillis said in an interview on MSNBC.

Hagan, in turn, blasted Tillis’ legislative record by pointing to a comment he made in October 2011 that suggested the state needed to “find a way to divide and conquer” those most in need from others who receive public assistance.

She used it to add weight to her criticism of the Republican legislative agenda that cut money for teaching assistants and benefits for unemployed workers.

“We should be working together to improve people’s lives, not pitting people against each other with the politics of division,” Hagan said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Speaker Tillis’ comment is not an isolated incident, and more than anything, his damaging legislative agenda that has been wrong for our state shows that his comments were no mistake.”

In the TV interview, Tillis said he regretted the word choice but stood by his assertion of waste and abuse in public assistance programs. “When we explain what we are talking about, I believe the citizens of North Carolina agree with it,” he said.

Likewise, Hagan’s campaign pushed back against Tillis’ statement about her state Senate record, saying she pushed against her own party at times to advocate tax cuts in 2006 and 2007, the two years before winning her U.S. Senate seat.

The verbal jousting a day after the November ballot took shape reflects the tight race for a seat that may determine partisan control of the U.S. Senate. The Rothenberg Political Report, a key Washington forecaster, moved the North Carolina Senate race to the “tossup” category Wednesday after previously ranking it as tilting slightly Democratic.

And the state legislative focus showcases the political tightrope Tillis will walk as the legislative session starts Wednesday with even more politicization than normal.

“This is an election year. The Senate race is going to play through the session,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist. “…(If) he stays as speaker and you’re a Democrat, you’re going to politicize the session to stake Tillis out on positions he doesn’t want to take.”

How Tillis — who has said repeatedly he will keep his post — positions himself is under a microscope from both ends of the political spectrum.

To win the Republican primary, fending off two more conservative challengers, Tillis shifted his stance to the right. He often trumpeted himself as the leader of the “conservative revolution” in Raleigh after Republicans took complete legislative power from Democrats for the first time in a century three years ago.

But in his victory speech Tuesday, Tillis didn’t mention the word “conservative” once. He instead bashed Hagan and linked her to President Barack Obama and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.

Asked about it later, Tillis suggested it was an oversight. He maintained he would run on the Republican legislative record, despite the polarization it spurred in recent years in protests and lawsuits.

“That is a conservative agenda I’m proud of,” he told reporters in Charlotte. “It’s one that clearly resonates with the citizens of North Carolina.”

Tillis is walking a fine line if he tries to move to more moderate ground, as political observers expect.

David McLennan, a political expert at William Peace University, said Tillis will want to avoid “the Mitt Romney label,” a reference to the former presidential candidate’s evolving positions.

“He’s staked out his positions in the primary and he’s got to live with them,” McLennan said. “If he runs to the center he runs the risk of tea partiers and social conservatives not coming out” to vote in November.

Bill Bostic, a 62-year-old from Asheboro, worked eight hours at the polls Tuesday supporting Tillis’ rival Greg Brannon, who aligned himself with the tea party and finished second in the primary.

Skeptical of Tillis, Bostic said he is considering voting for the Libertarian Party candidate, Sean Haugh. If he sticks with the Republican Party, he won’t do so with enthusiasm.

“There’s casting a vote and there’s having passion for a candidate,” Bostic said Wednesday. “They are different things.”

“If I had to choose between not-so-good and rotten,” he continued, referring to Tillis and Hagan respectively, “I’ll choose not-so-good.”

Photo: Third Way via Flickr

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Tillis Wins Outright For GOP Senate Nomination In North Carolina

By John Frank, The News & Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thom Tillis emerged as a clear victor Tuesday in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, overpowering a tea party challenge with help from Washington power-brokers who saw him as the best candidate to challenge Democrat Kay Hagan in November.

The House speaker, running on his conservative shift at the state level, exceeded the 40 percent mark necessary to avoid a July 15 runoff election, even with strong pushes at the end from his top rivals, obstetrician Greg Brannon and pastor Mark Harris.

The Associated Press called the race just after 9:20 p.m. The 100-plus Tillis supporters at the Omni Hotel in Charlotte erupted in cheers.

The primary pitted three factions of the state GOP against each other in a race viewed as a proxy for the divisions at the national level and possibly the 2016 presidential contest.

Hagan easily won her primary contest against two opponents who didn’t mount any campaign.

The winner this fall could tilt the partisan balance in the closely split U.S. Senate, and North Carolina’s importance in the national picture is readily apparent in the nearly $20 million spent by outside political groups in recent months to influence the race, particularly voters’ opinions about the federal health care law.

Tens of millions more in outside spending is expected in the months ahead in a race that likely will top state spending records.

“I would expect you’re going to start seeing a battle almost immediately,” said Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist who ran the party’s 2010 U.S. Senate candidate against Republican Richard Burr. “And I think you’ll start seeing pretty quickly a return to beating up on Kay Hagan.”

The top three candidates came into the race with natural supporters, though the fierce battle expected at the beginning of the election didn’t fully materialize.

Running as the leader of the conservative shift in the statehouse, Tillis won endorsements from Republican power-brokers, including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, and received help from two Super PACs.

Brannon tapped into Tea Party energy, staking out far-right positions as he emphasized a strict constitutional approach and received the backing of like-minded libertarian Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

Harris, a former state Baptist convention leader, stressed a “values” message that catered to his supporters in the faith community but struggled to get traction from a larger audience.

Five other candidates also appeared on the ballot.

Tillis managed to emerge from the heap with his financial advantage. Unlike the other candidates, Tillis was able to reach a broad swatch of voters with a million-dollar television advertising campaign and a $2.4 million boost from his allies.

His fundraising prowess and experience as a top lawmaker gave him an electability quality that helped sway Republican voters.

“We need some change in North Carolina,” said Ashley Van Wormer, a 44-year-old sales trainer from Cary, who voted for Tillis. We need “conservative values but not too far conservative. We need to elect somebody that can win.”

A runoff would have scrambled the picture because it’s held in the middle of summer when fewer people than ever were expected to participate. “Anything can happen in runoff. It’s sort of a wild west scenario,” said Andy Yates, a Republican strategist. “It’s about who is able to turn their voters out.”

The top three candidates all worked polling locations to win final votes before polls closed at 7:30 p.m. Tillis and Harris stuck close to home in the Charlotte area, while Brannon visited locations near Raleigh.

Amanda Huff, 33, of Raleigh was a patient of Brannon’s a decade ago — but it was only this winter, when a friend invited her to volunteer, that she learned how well their politics matched.

“As soon as I realized he was a Republican, and more importantly a conservative, I said ‘Absolutely,’ ” Huff said.

Her friend, Andrea Chisek, joined her at the dim-lit Architect Bar and Social House in downtown Raleigh, where close to 100 people gathered to cheer Brannon on Tuesday night.

Most impressive to Huff is Brannon’s ability to “bring everything back to the Constitution — article and everything.”

In Charlotte, Tom Davis joined more than a 100 Tillis supporters at the Omni Hotel downtown after spending the day trying to win votes at area precincts. He expected a close race but felt Tillis’ years as speaker makes him better qualified. “He’s been in the trenches and fought,” the 67-year-old said. “He’s experienced.”

Contractor Jon Rufty is looking for a different campaign for November. “Like all national politics, it’s just way too polarized,” the 59-year-old independent voter said. “It’s frustrating that the statesmanship is no longer alive on the national level. And I think both sides fall into that category.”

Rufty voted in the Republican primary but wouldn’t identify his favorite. For November, he said his vote is up for grabs. “I am looking for, especially at the national level, the parties to work together for what’s best for the country.”

Photo: North Carolina National Guard via Flickr

Clay Aiken Enters Race For Congress, Calls Federal Health Care Law Deficient

By John Frank, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

RALEIGH, NC — Clay Aiken said the federal health care law is deficient and doesn’t go far enough to address rising health care costs.

The former ‘American Idol’ contestant’s remarks came Thursday as he filed papers to get on the 2014 ballot in the 2nd Congressional District in North Carolina, a seat held now by Republican Renee Ellmers.

In tackling the health care question confronting all Democratic candidates this election year, Aiken sought middle ground: criticizing it as he defended it.

“I don’t think that it’s completely perfect,” he said. “I think there are a whole bunch of things that should be fixed and rough edges that should be smoothed out. I think that’s a problem that Democrats in general have, an inability to recognize the fact that a lot of people do have problems with that particular law. There are a lot of people who have a lot of problems with a lot of parts of it.”

He pivoted to add: “That said, the number of things that are positive about the law, we don’t talk about enough. There are parts of it, like doctors not being able to be paid to prescribe you a particular medication, like hospitals now having to tell you what they are charging you for and how much they are charging you for. A lot of parts we don’t talk about enough that I think need to get more light on them.”

The deficiencies, he said, “can be addressed without throwing out some really, really important protections for people.”

Asked what he’d fix, he added this: “I think you can take a look at the ratio between the most coverage and the least coverage. It’s at 3 to 1 now, and I think we can probably address that disparity so that we can make health care less expensive for certain people. I think that there are certainly ways that we need to continue to address rising health care costs, and I don’t think that this law goes far enough to address skyrocketing health care costs in general.”

Aiken did not get more specific. Ellmers is a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act, repeatedly supporting measures to defund and repeal it.

The Democratic primary to challenge her includes three candidates: Aiken, Keith Crisco and Toni Morris. Ellmers faces a primary challenge from Republican Frank Roche.

Aiken’s mother, Faye Parker, and a few of his former teachers joined him at the State Board of Elections in Raleigh for the filing. Aiken plans to make education a key part of his campaign.

Asked whether she ever imagined her son would run for Congress, Parker said no. “Every parent says their child is going to be president one day,” she said. “I used to tell him use your voice, but I don’t think this is what I was thinking. But he is using his voice.”

Aiken appeared casual and at ease. Reporters called him by his first name. Standing behind a podium to answer questions, he quipped “I feel like a politician now.”

Photo: UNICEF up close via Flickr