Trouble in North Carolina

by Quin Hillyer

While Democratic U.S. senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina has been seen as extremely vulnerable to Republican challenge this year, the battle for the Republican nomination has become uncomfortably complicated. The presumed front-runner, state house speaker Thom Tillis, has an impressively conservative record and, according to an unbiased and perceptive source going on first impressions at a luncheon last week, makes a very solid public presentation. But he has been under attack from a former political opponent, a Republican former state legislator he defeated in a primary eight years ago. Of course primary losers can be prone to sour grapes, and John Rhodes certainly has put together a rambling and rather hodge-podge list of accusations of “corruption” on Tillis’ part. Democrats will surely seize on this stuff, whether or not there’s anything to it.

Meanwhile, the person who most wowed the audience at the luncheon, and who apparently has been doing the same in multiple forums, is obstetrician and tea-party favorite Greg Brannon. My source found him a galvanizing speaker, but with a worrisome “edge” and lack of tonal modulation that could make him vulnerable to “extremist” charges in a general election, just based on style. It didn’t fall anywhere near the realm of a “Todd Akin problem,” according to my source, but it was just, well, a tiny bit off-putting. But that’s not the biggest problem with Brannon. Unlike Tillis, the accusations against whom are rather circumstantial, Brannon this month suffered an actual court judgment against him, to the tune of $450,000, for “giving misleading or false information” to investors in a tech-company project that badly failed.

Yet tea-party groups and Glenn Beck and others have been loudly trumpeting Brannon’s political cause. Again, it raises the question: Doesn’t anybody on the right know how to vet candidates properly, before rushing in with an endorsement based mostly on the candidate’s ability to spout conservative nostrums most convincingly?

I have no dog in this fight. I paid almost no attention to the particulars of this race until hearing from my source last week. I’m all for the Buckleyite idea of nominating the most conservative electable candidate for any office; and I believe electability isn’t merely a matter of where somebody falls on the ideological spectrum, but also and maybe primarily on the candidate’s ability to “connect” with voters on a both a gut level and at least a semi-intellectual level. I do believe that more-conservative candidates often can “connect” better with undecided voters than more moderate candidates can, because (among other reasons) one thing that can be attractive is for somebody to show the courage of his convictions.

Still, the second part of Buckley’s formulation is absolutely essential: The nominee should indeed be electable. To adjudge electability (which is part science, part art, and obviously a little guesswork), serious vetting is required. Before rushing in to propel Brannon (or Tillis, or another of the challengers) to the nomination, conservatives should take a deep breath, look into the particulars of this court judgment against Brannon, and follow the advice of Fagin in Oliver!, who sang “I think I’d better think it out again!”

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