The Fight for North Carolina: A Religious-Right Reverend Looks to Unseat Kay Hagan

The last time Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and national Democrats took on North Carolina Rev. Mark Harris, he was helping the effort to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

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The last time Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and national Democrats took on North Carolina Rev. Mark Harris, he was helping the effort to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Democrats lost that fight, badly.

Now Harris is attempting to unseat Hagan in the Senate, vying to win the Republican nomination with assistance from his band of grassroots allies. He announced his Senate candidacy this month, and has the potential to give state Senate House Speaker Thom Tillis a serious challenge in the Republican primary.

Harris has sent early signals that he'll build his Senate campaign infrastructure out of that same grassroots organization that fought against gay marriage. He has already brought on Republican activist Mary Frances Forrester, who spearheaded the Amendment One campaign, and Rachel Lee Brady, who worked for the pro-Amendment One group Vote Marriage NC. That could be helpful in injecting cash into the relatively unknown first-time candidate's campaign and could help propel Harris to the Republican nomination.

Harris led the successful movement to pass North Carolina's Amendment One last year. The key to that victory was that the group focused on churches, injecting the amendment into sermons and reaching out to voters in the pews, according to Jeremy Kennedy, who led the opposition to Amendment One. And it was effective. Amendment One passed by more than a 20-point margin, despite the opposition of Hagan, Pres. Obama, former Pres. Bill Clinton and a variety of state and national Democrats. Amendment One earned a solid 61 percent of the vote in a state that Obama lost by just two points that year.

But the general election is a different question. A more diverse electorate and new polling in the state make it look unlikely that Harris and his network of religious conservatives will be as successful in next year's Senate race.

Amendment One was on the ballot during last year's May primary, when there were no competitive statewide contests, not the general election when the presidential campaign and a heated gubernatorial race boosted turnout. As is typical of primary elections, the electorate was much older and much more conservative than in a typical general election, but the excitement around Amendment One exacerbated those differences. Over three-quarters of voters in the primary election were over the age of 50, according to Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling organization that worked with same-sex marriage proponents during the primary. That electorate was "enormously" helpful in getting Amendment One passed, pollster Celinda Lake said, and could be a boon to Harris in getting through the Republican primary.

Harris' campaign consultant Tom Perdue told Hotline On Call earlier this month that the reverend won't be running away from his views on social issues in the Senate contest, but will place a much higher premium on economic issues, particularly in a general election contest against Hagan.

Harris' biggest competition for the Republican nomination comes from Tillis, who is better-known, but doesn't have much of a following among social conservatives, leaving a big opening for Harris among the state's sizable church-going GOP population. And if the Amendment One fight last year proved anything, it's that social issues like same-sex marriage can spur primary voters to the polls. With the marriage amendment as the only competitive issue on the ballot, North Carolina experienced a historic 35 percent turnout, surpassing totals from 2008, when there was a competitive presidential election on the primary ballot.

And while turnout is likely to be even higher in November of 2014 (it hit 44 percent in 2010, during the last midterm Senate contest), the electorate will be much younger and feature a broader array of voters. And that's bad news for Harris, if he emerges as the nominee.

The broader North Carolina electorate appears to be much more conflicted about same-sex marriage than last year's Amendment One victory would indicate. A new Elon University poll out Friday shows that North Carolina voters are relatively split on the issue, with 47 percent saying they oppose gay marriage and 43 percent voicing support (the poll 3.7 percent has a margin of error), a sign that Harris' ground organization will face more difficulty courting general election voters than they did in winning over last year's primary electorate.

The Elon poll also took a look at voters' views on other social issues. On abortion, voters are similarly mixed, with 45 percent saying they believe the state should make access to abortions more difficult and 41 percent saying access should be less difficult. Neither issue topped voters' lists of the issues that they're most concerned about right now. When asked about the most important issue facing the country, not one person mentioned gay marriage or abortion, although about 4 percent of respondents said "values" or "family" and another one percent said "God" or "religion."

But there is also some good news for Harris. 46 percent of North Carolina voters surveyed said they attend church almost every week and 48 percent identified themselves as born-again Christians. Those could be ripe areas of support for a Baptist preacher from Charlotte, particularly one whose team is already established in churches across the state.

Since North Carolina voters are divided on gay marriage, the issue is just as volatile for Hagan, who came out in favor of same-sex marriage earlier this year. But as a first-time candidate, Harris doesn't have much of a record for Democrats to dig through and his comments on homosexuality in a series of television and public appearances during the Amendment One fight could provide fodder for opposition researchers eager to protect a vulnerable Hagan.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.