Charlotte pastor will challenge for U.S. Senate in 2014

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 09:03 PM

RALEIGH — The Rev. Mark Harris said Thursday he'll run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate next year, adding a favorite of the party's social conservatives to the list of potential challengers to Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Harris, senior pastor of Charlotte's First Baptist Church and outgoing president of the Baptist State Convention, told a couple hundred supporters gathered Thursday morning at a hotel outside Winston-Salem of his plans.

Many of those supporters had organized a "Draft Harris" movement last spring. Harris later agreed to hold a 90-day listening tour to gauge interest in a bid. He held nearly 120 meetings and covered 70 counties during that period, Harris political consultant Tom Perdue said.

"When I look at the vacuum of leadership that's being seen at so many levels, there's a deep cry from people across our country for leaders to stand up," Harris said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Harris will make an official multi-city announcement Oct. 2, seven months before the Republican primary. Harris would join at least three other people who are running for the nomination: House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, Cary obstetrician Dr. Greg Brannon and family nurse practitioner Heather Grant of Wilkes County.

State Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden also is weighing a bid.

As for Hagan, Harris said her votes for the economic stimulus and the federal health care overhaul, as well as her endorsement of gay marriage this year, aren't in line with the values of most North Carolina residents. Harris was a prominent leader on the committee that helped win voter approval in 2012 of a constitutional amendment that limited marriage to a man and a woman.

"She has voted down a cue card that could have been provided by the Obama administration or the Democratic National Committee," Harris said.

Hagan, in her first term, has billed herself as an independent-minded moderate who is focused on the economy and willing to work across party lines in the Senate. "North Carolinians appreciate her strong bipartisan track record of commonsense results that reflect her North Carolina-first approach," Hagan campaign manager Preston Elliott said in a release.

The North Carolina Democratic Party jumped on Harris' decision. Party spokesman Ben Ray accused Harris of being "focused on fringe political debates instead of the job creation that North Carolinians care about the most. North Carolinians want a senator focused on jobs, not refighting the culture wars."

While Harris hold strong connections to North Carolina's Baptists — the convention's 4,300 churches have a combined membership of 1.3 million — the entry of a minister in the race could turn off some voters.

Harris, 47, said he doesn't believe the "reverend" title will help or hurt him and hopes voters will see him as just a person. Harris said his more than two decades in ministry — he previously led churches in Clemmons and Georgia before coming to First Baptist in Charlotte in 2005 — has allowed him to see people who are hurting due to poverty and society's other challenges.

"I can put a name and a face on that," he said.

Harris said he will step away from his First Baptist duties in late November and take an unpaid leave once he files candidacy papers with the State Board of Elections in February.

Former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes and longtime Republican activist Mary Frances Forrester will be co-chairs of Harris' campaign, Perdue said. Forrester is the widow of state Sen. Jim Forrester, who helped get the amendment on limiting marriage on the ballot before his death.

Meanwhile, Tillis announced that former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, ex-U.S. ambassador Dave Phillips and the former GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Bob Ingram are on his fundraising team.