It's a cramped room in a cookie-cutter North Raleigh office park, and it's packed when 70 Republican activists show up for this official opening.
They're a flannel-and-ball caps crowd, all white, old and young, not a suit in sight. Killing time, a man and a woman trade jibes about U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democrat who is running this year for a second term. Hagan must go, they agree. However, the man adds with cold disdain, as the woman nods, "We don't want to replace her with a progressive Republican like Thom Tillis. What difference would that make?"
It's the first time I've ever heard Tillis, the speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives and a right-winger from my vantage point, referred to as progressive.
But then, these were self-described tea party Republicans, who were there to help open a campaign office for their favorite in the Republican Senate primary, Dr. Greg Brannon.
Brannon, a Cary OB-GYN, is a political novice who, when he arrives, is not quite what I expect. I was picturing a polished ideologue. An ideologue he is—and as far to the right as it's possible to be short of carrying a loaded musket—but he is quite deliberately a little mussed, and he talks in bursts. "The happiest people in the world that I'm running are my children," he cracks, "because they don't have to listen to me at the dinner table anymore."
Now, Brannon, 53, is spouting off in primary debates, where he's one of five candidates vying to be the anti-establishment alternative to Tillis, a man with well-heeled lobbyists hanging from his every limb. So far, Tillis has ducked the debates. I won't comment on the other four candidates, except to say that one is the Rev. Mark Harris, a Baptist preacher from Charlotte who played a big role in the anti-LGBT Amendment One campaign of 2012. He is a smooth talker with a sizeable following of evangelical Republicans.
I came with a question for Brannon, which he readily fielded while grabbing a bottle of water. (No beer. He doesn't drink.)
You're anti-establishment from the right, I said to him. My Occupy friends, who decry control by the richest 1 percent, are anti-establishment from the left. What are the chances of finding some common anti-establishment ground and combining to put Washington on the side of ordinary people?
"We're already there," he replied.
Unfortunately, we're not. Because what the left wants is a federal government that helps the disadvantaged, protects the environment and limits the power of giant corporations to run roughshod over the working class. But right-wing critics are convinced that corporate control of government—"elite control"—is inevitable in any sphere where government is allowed to exist in the first place.
Thus, rather than join in a progressive drive for reform, these conservatives would prefer that big chunks of the federal government simply go away. And no one wants more of the federal government abolished than Brannon.
It's hard to judge how Brannon will fare in the primary race. Tillis, backed by nearly every big-money Republican group and donor, is the presumed favorite and the only candidate with TV ads. But it's not clear that Tillis has much grassroots support. Polls show him only slightly ahead of Brannon and Harris and far below the 40 percent threshold needed to win the May 6 primary.
On the ground, meanwhile, the GOP's right-wing base is muttering that Tillis is the enemy. When Tillis failed to show up for a Jan. 6 forum in Greensboro held by Conservatives of Guilford County, for example, a straw poll of the crowd of about 300 gave Brannon 66 percent of the vote and Tillis just 1 percent. The results spread quickly across right-wing websites.
Indeed, influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who edits the Red State website (the conservative counterpart to the progressive Daily Kos blog ), helped launch Brannon's campaign with an endorsement last August at the RedState Gathering in New Orleans. Erickson likened Brannon to Sen. Ted Cruz, who led the drive to shut down the federal government over Obamacare.
Brannon's calling card is that, if elected, he will refuse to compromise about anything having to do with the U.S. Constitution or "life," which he defines as beginning at conception—period. He supports a so-called Sanctity of Life constitutional amendment to ban abortion rights, with no exceptions.
But Brannon's extremism goes much farther. He insists that the federal government's powers are limited to national defense and the promotion of trade. Everything else is a state prerogative, he argues. So when the federal government enacts a law about health care, for example, or education, Brannon believes state officials—like Tillis—are constitutionally obligated to block it. Nullify it, that is.
"I want to ask Thom Tillis why the health care exchange [for Obamacare] is allowed to operate in North Carolina," Brannon says. He's aware that Article VI of the Constitution, the supremacy clause, makes any federal law "the supreme Law of the Land." But not if it's an illegitimate usurpation of power, Brannon argues.
In the Senate, therefore, Brannon would vote against any appropriation for anything other than defense and interstate commerce—always. "Patrick Henry said give me liberty or give me death," he says often. "I'm finished with compromises."
By the way, Brannon is aware that nullification has a racist history in the South. However, he points out, the most successful nullification movement in U.S. history was in northern states which refused, prior to the Civil War, to enforce the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which required that runaway slaves be returned.
Individual rights are paramount, Brannon declares. Except that he's against marriage rights for same-sex couples and opposes a woman's right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy. On those issues, he wants the government to decide.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mr. Right's wrong ideas."