Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, largely shrugged off criticism about aspects of his legislative record from one of the three other candidates participating in their first television debate held two weeks before the May 6 primary. Tillis focused instead Tuesday night on what Republicans in Raleigh had accomplished since becoming the majority party under his leadership, and how he wanted to do the same in a U.S. Senate majority.
"I led a conservative revolution in Raleigh that the liberals don't like but conservatives like a lot," Tillis said at the close of the hour-long debate at Davidson College, adding that Hagan is out of touch by voting too similarly with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid: "She needs to be sent home."
The debate was the first of three in less than a week. A half-hour debate by the same four candidates — Tillis, obstetrician Greg Brannon, Baptist minister Mark Harris and family nurse practitioner Heather Grant — was scheduled for Wednesday evening at a Raleigh TV studio. In-person early voting begins Thursday.
On Tuesday, Brannon criticized Tillis for his record on the health care overhaul and national education standards. But Tillis defended himself and later criticized Brannon on a gun rights question.
Grant and Harris stayed clear of harsh words and generally agreed with the other two on supporting repeal of the health care overhaul, questioning the wisdom of raising the federal minimum wage and eliminating federal agencies. Brannon, a tea party favorite who counts U.S. Sen. Rand Paul among his endorsements, added the Federal Reserve and Internal Revenue Service to the list, citing portions of the U.S. Constitution that leave power to the states.
"That's what we've got to get back to ... individual sovereignty, state sovereignty," Brannon said.
Harris, the former president of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, suggested ethical principles should stand tallest for voters when picking a nominee.
"You can have all the money, you can have all the experience, you can have all the knowledge of the Constitution and whatever," Harris said. "But if you don't have character, what do you really have?"
Grant, who served as an Army nurse until 2012, said she's running to encourage other like-minded leaders in the future. "We need to work with those who come behind us and grow our conservative so that we never wind up exactly where we are now," she said.
Eight candidates in all are running in the GOP primary. Tillis is the favorite of GOP congressional leaders and leading fundraiser in the primary, which requires the leading vote-getter to receive more than 40 percent to avoid a mid-July runoff.
Hagan and national Democrats have criticized Tillis in recent commercials. Tillis has accused them of trying to meddle in the GOP primary by attempting to weaken his candidacy.
Hagan faces her own primary next month against two little-known opponents. Her campaign spent Tuesday night sending out emails, mostly criticizing Tillis. In a release, the campaign said the debate showed "they all support a fringe agenda that is bad for middle class families and out of touch with North Carolina's commonsense values."