A year ago, Ty Harrell had everything going for him. He had just won a second term representing North Carolina’s 41st House District in western Wake County. As a charismatic African-American and vice chair for two House committees, he was one of the state Democratic Party’s fastest rising stars.

But in a classic riches-to-rags political drama, it all changed. Harrell and his wife separated amid allegations that he engaged in an extra-marital affair, and the state Board of Elections launched an investigation into his campaign’s misuse of donations. The promising young politician resigned from office in September.

If nothing else, the scandal added spice to a district that’s one of the state’s most competitive. With voter registration evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and independents, pundits have tagged the seat as one of the most likely to switch hands in the mid-term election this November.

Sensing that opportunity, three Republicans are duking it out for a chance to take on Chris Heagarty, the former head of the N.C. Center for Voter Education appointed in October to complete Harrell’s term. Heagarty filed in early February to keep the district — which encompasses parts of north Raleigh, Morrisville, Cary, and Apex — in the Democrats’ corner.

Seasoned campaigner Todd Batchelor and pharmacist Tom Murry have emerged as the frontrunners. Both candidates oppose the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, advocate lower taxes, and are conservative on abortion and family values issues.

Wine wholesaler and political newcomer David Sloane is the third wheel of the race. He supports a return to limited government principles and hopes to demonstrate his independence by not seeking endorsements from party regulars.

Economy, health care dominate

For all three candidates, stimulating jobs and reversing government intervention in health care are top priorities.

“The [federal] mandate is a big concern for voters,” said Murry, a two-termer on the Morrisville Town Council. “A lot of folks are satisfied with the coverage they have. Any changes to that causes a lot of angst.”

Batchelor said that he supports legislation, proposed by House Republican Minority Leader Phil Berger of Eden, that would allow North Carolinians to dodge federal mandates that penalize citizens for not purchasing health insurance.

“We need to make real changes and not continue to raise peoples’ taxes and take all their money,” said Batchelor, who was the Republican challenger to 4th District U.S. Rep. David Price in 2004.

Sloane agrees with the gist of the proposed opt-out bill, but urged caution. “People are still trying to digest what this bill really has in it,” he said. “How do you a fight a bill that you don’t fully grasp yet?”

All three contenders give high marks to the grass-roots tea party movement, which has targeted bailouts, deficits, and health care spending. Sloane even suggests that it could spin off into a third party if Republican candidates aren’t conservative enough.

Little in-fighting

So far, the candidates have leveled most of their rhetorical ammunition at the opposing party and avoided attacking each other. But they’re still eager to explain why they’re the better choice for the GOP faithful.

Batchelor touts his experience as finance director for the N.C. Republican Party as evidence that he can out-fundraise Heagarty in the fall election. Campaign finance records show that Batchelor had about $24,000 on hand at the end of 2009.

“I am the representative that people can call at 1 a.m. and I’ll gladly answer the phone,” he said. “I personally put out yard signs at 4 a.m.”

Asked why he would be a better choice than Batchelor, Murry acknowledged that both choices bring conservative values to the table. But he emphasized his five-year record as a leader in Morrisville.

“There is a difference between saying you’re a conservative and actually governing in a conservative way,” Murry said. “Voters are looking for people who don’t just talk about doing something — they actually do it.”

Both candidates have gained key endorsements. Former House Speaker Harold Brubaker, now serving as a lawmaker from Randolph County, has backed Batchelor. Murry picked up the endorsement of Apex Mayor Pro Tem Bryan Gossage, who ran unsuccessfully against Harrell in 2008.

No official polling is available for the race, but Murry won a straw poll among delegates at the Wake County Republican convention by a 2-to-1 margin over Batchelor.

Batchelor says the poll doesn’t accurately reflect voter sentiment since the vast majority of delegates voting hailed from outside the district.

For his part, Sloane has cast himself as the independent voice in the race. He says that he’ll do what’s best for the state and not be beholden to a political party.

“I hear these same Republican lines from the other candidates, but I don’t see any new ideas from them,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.