CARY, North Carolina — Two years after his loss to a Republican favored by party leaders in Washington, Greg Brannon is betting the popularity of outsiders like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump can sweep him to a U.S. Senate primary upset win.
Brannon, a suburban Raleigh obstetrician and tea party favorite, is heartened by the early showings of Cruz — winning in Iowa — and Trump — cruising in New Hampshire, believing voters are in a throw-'em-all-out mood. He mounted a last-minute challenge to second-term Republican Sen. Richard Burr, whom he blames for failing to stop President Barack Obama's liberal policies.
"The establishment is on their rear end right now," Brannon said in an interview. "We have basically a one-on-one with the establishment candidate ... the cherry on top is the presidential campaign has four outsiders rocking the polls."
But the matchup is also different compared to when Brannon got 27 percent of the vote in 2014, losing to Thom Tillis, who unseated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
While Brannon ran for more than a year leading up to that primary, this year's primary is less than six weeks away, the result of North Carolina Republicans moving up the date for more influence in the presidential nomination process.
And Brannon must unseat a powerful incumbent in Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman with two decades of conservative credentials and the approval of mainline Republicans. Burr also has more than $5 million in campaign money.
A High Point University poll released this week showed Burr with a comfortable primary lead, although roughly a third of likely GOP primary voters were undecided or had no opinion.
"He's doing a steady job," said McDowell County Commissioner Randy Hollifield, 68, a Burr supporter and Republican. "Richard is not way to the right and he's not way to the left ... he's trying to do what is best for all of his constituents."
Brannon entered the race in late December and had just $49,000 entering the new year. Still, Brannon's got disciples from 2014 for his gospel of constitutional conservatism and who believe Republicans like Burr, who first went to Washington in 1995, have forgotten it. They're showing up, usually in the dozens, at town hall meetings Brannon is holding across the state.
"To me, (Burr) has become very comfortable as a career politician," said Mary McKinney, 60, of Durham, after a meeting at a Cary church. "So it's time to boot him out."
At the event, Brannon accused Burr of voting to raise the debt ceiling several times, to fund Obama's health care law and to compromise on spending bills that raised taxes. Burr did vote in early 2013 for the legislation that averted the "fiscal cliff," included higher taxes for the wealthiest income earners but extended tax cuts for others. His later vote to end the partial government shutdown also raised the debt ceiling. Brannon's heroes — Cruz and Rand Paul of Kentucky — voted no.
Burr loves "to call himself a conservative, especially around election time," Brannon said. "When you look at his record it's clear. That's not conservative."
Burr's lifetime voting record ranks him in the top 20 most conservative current U.S. senators, according to the American Conservative Union. Brannon said Burr's grades from other groups are worse. The Conservative Review gives Burr an "F," in part citing a mixed record on fiscal issues.
Burr declined an interview request about his rival but said by email "this is another desperate attempt from Greg Brannon to distort my conservative voting record in the Senate. The truth is I have stood up to President Obama, his allies and even members of my own party to cut spending, reduce taxes and repeal Obamacare on numerous occasions." He also talked up his national security credentials as a reason why primary voters should choose him.
Alfredo Rodriguez, a GOP political consultant in Charlotte who has worked with tea party and establishment Republicans but is not involved in the Senate race, said Brannon peaked in 2014.
"I don't think Greg is a very strong or credible candidate," Rodriguez said. "To claim that Sen. Burr is not conservative is false and not genuine." Two other Republicans — Paul Wright of Mount Olive and Larry Holmquist of Greensboro — are running more low-key campaigns.
Burr appears to be an early re-election favorite should he win the primary. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and key interest groups within the party have aligned with state legislator Deborah Ross of Raleigh.
Brannon is tapping into the anger of tea party Republicans who feel like GOP leaders used them for their political benefit in 2010.
"They stomped on us and spit on us and said go the hell away," said Outer Banks resident Jim Harris, who backs Brannon and was weighing between Cruz and Trump for president. "All we want is a conservative to rein in spending and get government down to size."
Brannon's platform, which relies on a literal reading of the Constitution, leads to some stark policy outcomes, including the abolition of the federal income tax and shifting regulatory powers now held by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to states.
The anti-establishment sentiment could work elsewhere in North Carolina, such as the GOP primary involving 2nd Congressional District Rep. Renee Ellmers and three challengers, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. Ellmers was once a tea party favorite but has been criticized for her connections to former House Speaker John Boehner.
But, Taylor said, "I don't really see very much in the way of a desire of many Republicans to get rid of Richard Burr."
Even Brannon supporter Daniel Cruz, 41, of Holly Springs, who attended the Cary event, acknowledged "it's a long road for him" to win, especially with the March primary.
"I think if you're a betting person, you never bet against incumbents," Cruz said.