Henderson County GOP Convention, March 22. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

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Tillis counters questions about college degree

More than 150 people attended the annual convention of the Henderson County Republican Party, held March 22. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

HENDERSONVILLE — Republican hopefuls for U.S. Senate spoke to a room awash with their own on Saturday, making platform pitches and alluding to current campaign issues a little more than a month before the May 6 primary.

The candidates, former Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander, Dr. Greg Brannon, Jim Snyder and North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, appeared at the annual convention of the Henderson County Republican Party.

Additional speakers included U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, state Sen. Tom Apodaca and state Rep. Chris Whitmire.

The event was marked by continual applause for GOP control of the General Assembly and calls to action for upcoming races. It was attended by more than 150 Republicans and lasted roughly four hours.

Thom Tillis. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

Tillis spoke early, addressing the audience well before any of other Senate candidates. Henderson County GOP chairman Glen Englram said Tillis was allowed to speak well before his challengers in order to accommodate a busy schedule, which Tillis said included at least “three or four” other events and meetings in the region.

With the promise of a Washington, D.C., fundraiser scheduled for Monday, Tillis vowed if elected to hold members of the U.S. Senate to a “higher standard of leadership.” He also endorsed a controversial political advertisement inserted into a recent issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times, encouraging attendees to get their hands on a copy.

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Dr. Greg Brannon. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

“I don’t know about you, but [the Citizen-Times] doesn’t seem to be too thrilled about conservative values,” he said, holding up a copy of The Raleigh Digest, a 48-page insert published by a company owned by state Rep. Tim Moffitt. “Rep. Moffitt tried to do a good job of inserting this and getting it out, and I think it caught some of the editors’ hair on fire. But it’ll tell you about a lot of the good things we’ve done.”

Tillis touted his record in Raleigh, recounting his work to turn Democrat-controlled chambers into Republican supermajorities over his four terms.

He also briefly alluded to recent questions surrounding misrepresentation of his college degree.

Ted Alexander. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

“I didn’t go to college,” he told the group, offering remarks on his background. “I graduated high school and went to work, because that’s what someone from a family of of six kids did in my time. I then went on to attend five different colleges and get a degree.”

Tillis’ comments came in the wake of scrutiny following reports suggesting he had exaggerated the origin of his diploma—stating that his degree had been attained at the University of Maryland rather than the University of Maryland University College.

But speaking with Carolina Public Press after the event, the Speaker said he had not attempted to mislead voters, and he praised his journey from blue-collar employment to a role in the General Assembly.

Jim Snyder. Alicia Funderburk/Carolina Public Press

He said issues regarding his resume had been fixed.

“It was a mistake, and we’ve moved on,” he said.

Tillis was followed by Meadows, who declined to endorse any candidate in the Senate primary. The remaining three Senate candidates shared positions with the crowd following Meadows’ remarks and a lengthy barbecue lunch break.

All three hopefuls lamented President Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and took repeated shots at Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking her first re-election to the Senate as an incumbent.

Brannon, a Tea Party candidate who has received backing from U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, vowed if elected to oppose any legislation that wasn’t in line with the U.S. Constitution.

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The candidate, who has polled neck-and-neck with Tillis in recent weeks, never mentioned Tillis or any of his opponents by name, instead opting to distinguish himself by support he has received from grassroots, “bottom-up” organizations. In the past, Brannon has said he thought Tillis would be “unelectable” on the November ballot.

“This race is all issue oriented,” Brannon said in an interview with Carolina Public Press. “Our support is grassroots. It’s not top-down, it’s bottom-up. The idea of what our campaign is is getting attention, because of our grassroots nature and the things we stand for.”

Alexander and Snyder also offered brief remarks, focusing their comments on personal backgrounds and commitments to not be swayed by Washington-culture if elected to office.

Alexander said he thought any of the GOP candidates would be a finer alternative to Hagan, and he committed to backing the party’s Senate nominee no matter who won the upcoming primary.

“We have eight fine candidates, and any of them would be far superior to the one that we have right now in the U.S. Senate,” Alexander said.

Along with Tillis, Brannon, Alexander and Snyder, candidates who will appear on the May 6 Republican ballot include Edward Kryn, Mark Harris, Heather Grant and Alex Lee Bradshaw. Several candidates are expected to participate in a debate hosted by The (Raleigh) News and Observer and the Charlotte Observer on April 22 at Davidson College.

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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