Senate candidate Greg Brannon will find a way to relate any subject back to the Constitution. Often he sounds just one step away from donning a powdered wig and dressing in colonial garb. Yet his passion to restore the federal government to its constitutional limits—abandoned by many Republicans after the 2010 elections—is the trademark of his campaign to represent the “sovereign state of North Carolina.”
“Looking at the Declaration of Independence and then the Bill of Rights,” Brannon told TAS in an interview, “we have to think, ‘How the heck did we become what we are today?’”
In a crowded field of eight Republicans targeting Democratic Senator Kay Hagan’s seat, there is no clear frontrunner for the May 6 primary, in which the leading candidate must seize 40 percent of the vote to prevent a July runoff. A March 20 poll conducted by SurveyUSA has Thom Tillis, North Carolina’s Speaker of the House, leading 28 percent to Brannon’s 15, and Heather Grant, running on a similar constitutional platform, with 11 percent. A March 9 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling has Tillis and Brannon tied.
At this point, competing endorsements make a 40 percent win unlikely: Brannon was backed by Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, Tillis received endorsements from members of the North Carolina General Assembly, and just last weekend, candidate Mark Harris benefitted from a fundraiser hosted by fellow Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee. A candidates debate, to be held on April 22, may frame a likely nominee.
If Brannon takes the Republican nomination, he isn’t worried that his constitutional conservatism will be a hard sell for the general electorate come November. “The core of North Carolina is a collection of conservative Republicans, conservative Democrats, and constitutionalists,” he says.
Recent electoral history in the Tar Heel State, seemingly bipolar, may at first cast doubt on that claim. In 2008, North Carolina elected three Democrats in statewide races: Bev Perdue for governor, Barack Obama for president, and Kay Hagan for senator. In 2012, North Carolina swung red, voting for both Mitt Romney and Pat McCrory, who succeeded Perdue as governor.
But it’s unlikely that North Carolina really underwent a partisan shift between 2008 and 2012. The cause of the state’s varying voting patterns rests primarily on a failure by the GOP to start grassroots organizing early enough in 2008. Obama had already been engaging in superior grassroots efforts by the time Republicans began their voter contact initiatives, thus painting extensive blue streaks in what Republicans considered a southern state already in the bag for John McCain. “Barack Obama had a phenomenal ground game. [It] was much stronger than the Republicans’,” Brannon said. Riding on the coattails of Obama’s organizational efforts and then-enormous popularity, Hagan was able to slip into Washington.
Brannon originally hails from the low-income neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles, where he worked his way up to undergraduate studies at USC and medical school in Chicago. In 1993, he started an OB/GYN practice in Cary, North Carolina, which now has a “patient network of 20,000.” Brannon is campaigning on the fact that he is not a politician—“a four-letter word,” as he is fond of saying—but a “servant citizen” with experience in health care. Managing to obtain key Tea Party endorsements and rise in the polls, Brannon is using his marketing skills to good effect.
Brannon’s campaign is being run in opposition not just to Hagan, but to the “progressivism [that] has become the establishment of both parties,” and as Brannon sees it, that includes his Republican challenger Tillis. A progressive for Brannon isn’t merely a person of the left, but someone who flattens the Constitution with special interest politics.
Brannon, in contrast, reads the Constitution in the context of the Founders’ original intent. During our conversation, he employed what first appeared to be standard conservative rhetoric, extolling our right to life, naturally adding that it “begins at conception,” and then championing a human right to liberty. Here he abruptly stopped. Waiting to hear “the pursuit of happiness,” I endured a brief awkward silence.
“John Locke wrote about life, liberty, and property," he said. "Mecklenburg County is the first place where ‘pursuit of happiness’ came up and Jefferson took it.” Brannon is hesitant to use the Jeffersonian “pursuit of happiness,” which replaced the Lockean “property” out of fear that “happiness” could be misconstrued as “equal outcome” rather than the originally intended “equal opportunity,” a distinction Brannon chides progressives for blurring.
His constitutional orginalism doesn’t end there. Though undoubtedly a supporter of the Tenth Amendment, he can’t fully defend Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s claim that states ought to be “laboratories of democracy,” preferring to see them as “laboratories of republics.”
“A republic protects the rights of minorities and the rule of law,” he said. “Democracy is mobocracy. The founders didn’t intend for a democracy. John Adams was especially critical, saying that every democracy in history has been led into suicide.”
This big-picture philosophy fuels both his campaign and his wider interest in politics. Sure, he finds legislation like Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, Common Core, and excessive spending bills sponsored by both parties disastrous, but what truly irks him is D.C.’s overarching detachment from the Constitution: what gives rise to poor policy in the first place. The Cary physician wants to treat the symptoms, but foremost fight the cause.
He seems to recognize the limits of these constitutional ambitions. But where he can’t succeed on a large scale, he's willing to pick and prioritize his battles. He says, without hesitation, that he will focus on “defunding and repealing Obamacare.”
Popular dislike of the health care bill will certainly be the key talking point of Republicans challenging incumbent Senate Democrats, though in a packed primary where we should expect all the Republicans to blast Obamacare, nominee hopefuls will have to distinguish themselves. Brannon’s hope lies in his constitutional originalism.
With Hagan’s victory in 2008 graced by Obama’s ground game, a vastly unpopular health care bill which she voted for, and a primary opponent who he sees as a Republican copy of Hagan, Brannon is confident a coalition of red and blue constitutionalists will send him to Capitol Hill—if not in George Washington’s horse-drawn carriage, then with enough of a mandate to make a difference.