- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Republican U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon will soon know whether last week’s North Carolina civil jury verdict against him inflicted serious damage on his electoral future. That’s because the GOP primary is just 10 weeks away.

Jurors found the Cary obstetrician gave false or misleading information to potential investors of a now-defunct technology company, and he must pay more than $250,000.

Brannon, who had been a company director, said after the trial that he was “treated unfairly by the court,” without giving further explanation.

“I will defend my integrity and will be appealing this decision,” he said.

But opinions are split on whether the verdict, with appeals that won’t be resolved for months, will weigh him down too much before the May 6 primary.

“It cuts out the legs underneath him politically. It’s not a death knell, but it’s close,” said Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant not involved in the U.S. Senate campaign.

Crone said there’s not enough time for Brannon to recover as potential voters ask whether the candidate is trustworthy: “This is going to be real fresh and real damaging.”

But Brannon’s allegations of unfairness may resonate with his base of tea party adherents, many of whom already are distrustful of contemporary government. His most adamant supporters right now are sticking with him, with at least one raising suspicions.

“I think that politics does not stop at the courthouse doors,” said Chuck Suter of Charlotte, founder of ConstitutionalWar.org, a tea-party organization. “Our legal system is anywhere from perfect.”

The verdict comes as Brannon and at least five other Republicans prepare for a sprint to the primary. The winner will take on Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in November.

Brannon seemed to be on an upward arc, with support from grassroots and national tea party groups, conservative personalities and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Brannon is trying to win over dispirited Republicans and unaffiliated voters unhappy with state House Speaker Thom Tillis, one of the primary candidates.

The two investors who sued accused Brannon of telling them Verizon was interested in installing technology being created by the now-defunct Negoence Enterprises on its smartphones. But Verizon leaders never told the company that, their lawsuit said. Brannon, a company director, didn’t take the stand in the trial, but his lawyer portrayed his client as only forwarding information that he believed was reasonably reliable.

So far, Brannon’s top rivals by name recognition and fundraising - Tillis and the Rev. Mark Harris - haven’t actively gone after Brannon on the court case. “The findings of the case and verdict of the jury speak for themselves,” Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw said by email.

A Brannon campaign spokesman didn’t respond late last week to emails and a phone message about the effect of the trial on his primary bid. But Brannon moved forward the day after the verdict, filing his official candidacy papers at the State Board of Elections.

Even as jurors deliberated, Brannon appeared by phone on national conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s radio and TV show. Beck all but endorsed Brannon. Such support could reap campaign contributions from out-of-state donors that don’t pay as much attention to North Carolina court cases.

On the other hand, last week’s verdict could prove to be fodder for his GOP rivals if they need it during a debate or their own ads.

Jennifer Brubaker, a communication studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said while the public can forgive candidates or politicians, other mistakes don’t get much sympathy from voters, such as fraud. Brannon didn’t face a criminal fraud trial, but the jury’s verdict pinned wrongdoing on Brannon for his business activity.

“We are in a climate right now where we really have a public backlash against business and businesses not being held accountable,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker said Brannon’s current response to the verdict of unfair treatment could work to his advantage by tapping into frustrations by tea party members about government. Getting Brannon’s base of support to the polls could help deny Tillis or anyone else the more than 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a July runoff. In a runoff, the top two vote-getters would advance.

Brannon’s situation is not “insurmountable, but he’s definitely fighting an uphill battle,” Brubaker said.

Whether Brannon advances to the general election could depend upon voters such as Ed Toney of Charlotte, a retired Coast Guard employee. Toney said he liked what Brannon had to say at a recent Mecklenburg County forum, but he isn’t going to judge him until reviewing carefully the trial’s details.

Toney said other candidates probably have made mistakes in the past, too.

“If you dig deep enough, then you’re going to find something where they were liable,” Toney said.

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