The Rev. Mark Harris formally unveiled his Republican bid for U.S. Senate on Wednesday, saying he would wear the mantle of fiscal and social conservatism in Washington and seek a more robust U.S. foreign policy if he unseats Democrat Kay Hagan next year.
The Baptist minister from Charlotte framed his campaign as an effort to restore traditional values and reduce the scope of the federal government.
Harris is likely to face an expensive May primary with state House Speaker Thom Tillis and others.
"People are worried about a sluggish economy, they're worried about our eroding values and they're worried about the growing intrusion of a federal government into our daily lives," Harris said inside a private hangar at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. "And perhaps, more importantly, they're worried that their elected officials just really don't seem to care anymore.
"I do care. I care about you," he said to TV cameras, his wife Beth at his side. "I care about your families and I care about our country."
Harris, whose profile grew while speaking out last year for the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, said during his six-stop flyover tour he would seek to repeal the nation's new health care law and cut the size of government if elected. Harris said he also would keep opposing abortion and promoting marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Charlotte pointed out that Hagan, a first-term senator, voted for the health care overhaul and earlier this year spoke out in favor of gay marriage.
"The contrast between myself and Kay Hagan is clear and will be even more clear in the days to come," Harris said. "Her positions, her statements and her votes will stand in stark contrast to mine."
Harris, 47, was less detailed with reporters about how he differed from the other three announced GOP candidates, especially Tillis. But he said his 24 years in the ministry gave him leadership and financial experience, as well as empathy for people and what ails them - such as unemployment, addictions and the breakdown of the family.
"If you really look at the record and you look at the commitment and the core that I've had as an individual, I think you're going to see those contrasts," he said, pointing out it was just the campaign's first day. But "please understand, our target is to defeat Kay Hagan."
While Harris said he would hope to represent all North Carolina residents as U.S. senator, he's clearly banking on his social conservative credentials to help him win the primary. Cary obstetrician Greg Brannon and Wilkes County family nurse practitioner Heather Grant also are announced GOP candidates.
As president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina for the past two years, Harris is well connected to conservative Christians who also helped pass the gay marriage ban by a comfortable margin. His campaign co-chairs include former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes, a social conservative who upset Richard Vinroot in the 1996 Republican primary for governor. Hayes introduced Harris at the Raleigh-Durham stop.
Harris said he doesn't see his gay-marriage position as negative for his campaign, even as other states have permitted same-sex marriage since the referendum.
"The reason for that marriage amendment was protecting traditional marriage because of what it means to children," Harris said, pointing to unidentified studies that have concluded that children benefit from having a mother and father in their lives. Traditional marriage, he added, is "a principle upon which I stand."
Harris hit on other topics of interest to primary voters, accusing Democrats and President Barack Obama of discouraging the rights of citizens to own guns. On foreign policy, Harris said, Obama has undermined the military, and allies can no longer trust America to have their back: "He simply has failed to lead."
As for the partial government shutdown, Harris blamed the president and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for stonewalling efforts for compromise with House Republicans on changes to the new health care law. He said he would have supported House legislation to defund or delay the health care changes.