Republican U.S. Senate candidates (L_R): Mark Harris, Heather Grant, Greg Brannon, Thom Tillis
Republican U.S. Senate candidates (L-R): Mark Harris, Heather Grant, Greg Brannon, Thom Tillis
Republican U.S. Senate candidates (L-R) Mark Harris, Heather Grant, Greg Brannon, Thom Tillis at the debate at Davidson College.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Questions on LGBT equality were omitted by moderators and journalists during the first televised debate between Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina.

Four candidates — state House Speaker Thom Tillis, Baptist pastor Mark Harris, Army Nurse Corps veteran Heather Grant and Dr. Greg Brannon — faced off during the event at Davidson College in the first of three televised debates over the next week.

The candidates were posed with a variety of wide-ranging questions on issues like the Affordable Care Act, the role and size of the federal government, the minimum wage, Common Core education standards, the legalization of marijuana, gun control and more.

They even got to weigh in on their favorite North Carolina sports teams, their preference between Eastern- or Lexington-style barbecue and the last book they’d read.

Yet, candidates were not asked a single question on LGBT equality issues like marriage or employment protections.

The omission from the debate could be interpreted as curious, given the relevance of the pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act — recently passed in the U.S. Senate but held up generally in both chambers of Congress for two decades — and the continued, hotly-contested debate over same-sex marriage. In particular, two candidates in the Republican primary played essential roles in recent debates over anti-LGBT marriage discrimination in North Carolina.

Tim Boyum, Time Warner Cable News’ “Capital Tonight” host and moderator for the Tuesday debate, told qnotes that questions on LGBT issues were considered important and discussed prior to the event. Ultimately, though, the questions chosen by him and the journalists aimed to “seek some differentiation among the candidates.”

“This was a primary debate and, frankly, we know how these candidates feel on the issue,” Boyum said via email. He said marriage and other LGBT equality concerns haven’t been a “major issue for voters” during this particular GOP primary.

Boyum added, “In the fall, with candidates who will definitely disagree on the issue, I would anticipate that topic to be raised.”

qnotes reached out to get comment and more context from the three journalists on the debate panel — The Charlotte Observer‘s Taylor Batten, The News & Observer‘s Lynn Bonner and Time Warner Cable News’ Loretta Boniti. We’ve not yet heard back from them.

Tillis’, Harris’ LGBT histories

As speaker of the North Carolina House, Tillis presided over sessions which considered and then approved the addition of the state’s constitutional amendment on marriage to a May 8, 2012, ballot. The measure, which Tillis said he supported, was passed by 61 percent of voters.

Tillis made waves among conservatives when speaking to students at North Carolina State University a month before the ballot initiative. At the time, Tillis said he thought the amendment would pass, as it did, but that it would eventually be overturned.

“It’s a generational issue,” Tillis said. “If it passes, I think it will be repealed within 20 years.”

Harris, meanwhile, was an outspoken and well-known proponent for the amendment, using his position as pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church and president of the North Carolina Baptist Convention to work with pro-amendment organizers with the Vote for Marriage NC referendum committee and the North Carolina Values Coalition.

During his campaign, Harris has portrayed himself as a “conservative Christian” candidate and a defender of “traditional” and “family” values. He mentions his involvement in the amendment campaign on his website.

“I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, and was a founding member of the ‘Vote for Marriage NC’ campaign,” Harris says. “I will not compromise on the issues of family values.”

A recent poll from the Durham-based Public Policy Polling shows a decreased opposition to marriage equality. The 2012 amendment passed with a 22-point margin, but the new April 2014 poll shows just 53 percent of people today would vote for the measure. The firm also notes “there is increasingly little division among voters in the state about whether gay couples should at least have some sort of legal rights in the form of civil unions.” An overwhelming majority (68 percent) of Democrats and independents support civil unions, and even Republicans offer a narrow 50 percent approval.

The 2012 amendment bans both marriage and civil unions. The measure is currently being challenged in two separate cases by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. A Virginia U.S. District Court judge overturned that commonwealth’s ban in February. That ruling is being appealed to Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. It’s pending ruling could affect the North Carolina amendment.

The Tuesday Davidson College debate was sponsored by The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and Time Warner Cable News. A second televised debate will be hosted by Raleigh’s WRAL on Wednesday evening. UNC-TV will host a third debate next Monday.

Early voting in the May 6 primary begins on Thursday.

For more on the debate, see this story by The Charlotte Observer. You can also watch the debate in its entirety online. The debate will be re-aired on Time Warner Cable News (channels 14 and 200) at 11 a.m Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday.

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.