How the GOP’s Establishment Candidate in North Carolina Won by Running Right

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 29 2014 6:35 PM

Just Right Enough

So much for the Republican “civil war” in North Carolina.

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That was how Brannon talked all the time, in most interviews and every debate, and especially in the April 28 public television debate that closed out the campaign. Each candidate was given a little red card with the word “rebuttal” on it, to be waved whenever he was lied about. Brannon never used it—he turned every question back to the section of the Constitution that invalidated it, then flashed a quick smile at his son in the audience.

Was the Affordable Care Act legal? “The Supreme Court has no power to enforce their opinion. This goes back to state sovereignty.”

How could America make Russia irrelevant? “In Article IV of the Constitution, the federal government makes money by selling its territories and land. Sell back parts of the western states again.”

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Brannon dazzled his opponents with obscure references. He alone pointed out that America had not officially declared war since the beginning of conflict with Romania during World War II, and he alone asked the audience to read a foreign policy tract written by Sen. Robert Taft during his primary with Dwight Eisenhower. (A sample line: “The brazen disregard of law in the Korean enterprise and in the setting up of an international army in Europe is further evidence that our State Department has long since repudiated any serious respect for law and justice.”)

Tillis could hardly compete, but neither wanted nor needed to. On his side: a metahuman command of talking points. At the final debate, as in every debate, he packed at least two digs at Hagan into every answer. Hagan and Obama were, he said, “destroying America.” When asked how he’d replace Obamacare, he promised he “wouldn’t follow Kay Hagan’s failure of Obamacare, which put 2.5 million people out of work.”

Monday night’s moderator did not challenge the “2.5 million” line, which wasn’t really true at all. But neither did the other candidates, who sprained their joints trying to find the space to Tillis’ right. The best Mark Harris, the pastor-turned-candidate, could do was shame Tillis for saying that the state’s 2012 gay marriage ban—put on the ballot after Tillis marshaled it through the House—would be repealed in 20 years.

“What I said was a warning,” Tillis told reporters after the debate. “It wasn’t a prediction.”

The best Brannon could do, apart from demonstrating his superior knowledge of what happened in 1787, was cite a radio ad (paid for by the Democrats) in which Tillis called the Affordable Care Act “a great idea that can’t be paid for.” Hagan’s point: Hey, even Tillis didn’t disagree with the goals of the law.  

“It doesn’t sound like Kay Hagan or Greg Brannon get my sarcasm,” Tillis told me.

There was really no way to tell. After Monday’s debate, Tillis and Harris hung around to talk to reporters. The next day, Tillis went on a two-day public tour with the Chamber of Commerce, and a call to Harris’ campaign found a volunteer happy to say where the candidate was heading next.

Brannon was not so easy to reach. When the debate ended, he retreated to a green room with his aides, huddling for about 20 minutes before darting back to his hospital. His spokesman apologized to reporters and collected phone numbers where the candidate could call them. The calls never came. The next morning, calls and texts to the spokesman went to voicemail and—eventually—bounced off a full mailbox.

While they did, Tillis was replacing McCrory at the podium, under the steel sign, saying everything he needed to say. Hagan had voted “96 percent of the time with President Obama,” which meant she wasn’t what North Carolina deserved—“a senator that believes in America, that believes in American exceptionalism.” Sure, there were protests of the Republican legislature. Check the record, check the unemployment number: The protesters were wrong. “Our conservative revolution—the liberals hated it, the conservatives loved it.”

So the press returned to McCrory: Why, as the leader of the party, did he weigh in on this race and stop pretending he was neutral?

“I was being asked by a lot of people,” he said. “That’s the kind of leader I am—I tell people where I stand on an issue.”

Another reporter asked if McCrory had alienated the Tea Party—he blew the question off with a well-scripted attack on Hagan. The scrum broke up, and McCrory took a few questions about how the state was preparing for a hurricane, until another reporter asked if the primary was still splitting the party.

“I think I’ve answered that question,” said McCrory. In word and deed, he had.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.