- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 25, 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Two candidates seeking to chase down House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary have become bolder in their attacks on his decisions and conservative credentials.

A fundraising letter signed by Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon accused Tillis of a “record of a culture of corruption” that renders him “unelectable” should he advance to challenge Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in November. Brannon also labeled Tillis a “moderate” and part of the “political establishment” - two phrases that are anathemas to many conservative activists.

The campaign of Baptist minister Mark Harris of Charlotte also has joined the attacks, suggesting Tillis isn’t committed enough to preserving the state’s gay marriage ban.

Harris said Tuesday that such challenges are fair because Tillis contrasts his accomplishments as a General Assembly leader with the challengers’ political inexperience. Harris and Brannon haven’t run for elected office before.

Anyone who claims “they want everybody to know what they’ve done has got to be willing to live by that,” Harris said following a GOP candidate forum at a Greensboro country club.

Tillis, who didn’t attend the forum, said he’s being attacked because he’s succeeding in the campaign. Early voting for the May 6 primary begins April 24. There will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters if the leading candidate fails to get at least 40 percent.

“I’m talking about an agenda to move North Carolinians ahead and every other Senate campaign in the state is just focused on garbage,” he said in a release that also mentions Hagan and her liberal allies. “These are serious times and our state needs a senator who cares more about North Carolinians’ lives than about politicians’ reputations.”

The chief GOP rivals to Tillis, who has been the strongest fundraiser in the primary race to date, have yet to run television ads while Tillis has aired at least two commercials. He has kept his aim on Hagan and her record in the Senate.

Carter Wrenn, a longtime state Republican consultant who isn’t working in the Senate race, said Brannon and Harris are “trying to make people have some doubts about Tillis” but they’ll need to have it repeated over and over again for the chance of having an impact in the race.

“When you’re in a campaign, the surest way to get a message across is if you have the money to put on radio or on television,” Wrenn said.

Tillis‘ two rivals are accumulating funds to get on television in the final weeks. Harris announced he raised more than $100,000 over the weekend at a Raleigh fundraiser anchored by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And Utah Sen. Mike Lee will be in North Carolina on Friday for a pair of fundraisers for Brannon.

The candidates also are frustrated because Tillis hasn’t attended several candidate forums, including Tuesday, when six of the eight Republicans visited the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club. “Why is Mr. Tillis not at these events?” Brannon asked more than 100 in attendance. At least one televised debate is scheduled two days before early voting.

Brannon and Harris have said they are troubled by Tillis‘ decision to give two former employees on the House speaker’s staff severance pay when they resigned because of inappropriate relationships with lobbyists. At the time, Tillis said the staff members were paid more than $19,000 in part because of unpaid work they previously did for him.

Brannon has questioned the credibility of Tillis‘ repeated statements that he wants to repeal the federal health care overhaul if elected by citing other times where he praised some of the patient protections in the law.

In his defense, Tillis points out he helped get legislation passed earlier in 2011 to direct state attorneys to challenge the health care overhaul law in court, but then-Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed it.

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