In North Carolina’s sole competitive U.S. congressional race, there is a wide open primary with seven Republican candidates. Five of those candidates gathered on Saturday, March 19, for a forum moderated by Carolina Journal’s Dallas Woodhouse and hosted at the Harnett County GOP’s annual convention. A sixth, Bo Hines, the 26-year-old Trump-endorsed candidate, also showed up, but left before the forum began, causing some confusion as he had confirmed his participation in the forum with organizers.

The candidate who appeared to win the day, in buzz among attendees and in the later straw poll, was Johnston County small businessman DeVan Barbour. Barbour received 45 of the 59 votes, or 76% of the votes overall, in the poll. The results were provided to Carolina Journal by the Harnett County GOP. 

The forum began with Todd Bachelor speaking on behalf of Kelly Daughtry. Daughtry is an attorney from Johnston County. Her father, Leo Daughtry, was a powerful Republican leader in the General Assembly. She is considered a top contender in the race as well. 

Barbour was the first to introduce himself, saying, “I’m glad you’re all here this afternoon, but I’m going to give you all a little spoiler alert. Everybody you hear from for the next couple of hours is going to say the exact same thing. We’re all pro-life. We’re all for Second Amendment rights. We’re all for lower taxes. We’re all for energy independence. We all think Joe Biden is running this country into the dirt. If we don’t, we ought to be disqualified. Right? I’m asking for your support because I’m from here and I’m running for here. You need a congressman who does more than just regurgitate the national talking points.” 

Next up was Kent Keirsey, an Army veteran and attorney. He spoke about his life coming from a military family and choosing to take the same path himself. When he was at West Point, he said the Sept. 11 attacks happened, and knew he was on the right path. 

“I got selected to go to Iraq in ’05-’06, was selected to be an instructor at the U.S. Army Ranger School,” Keirsey said. “But I had this sinking feeling in my gut, that the fight for freedom wasn’t over there. Perhaps the fight for freedom was right here at home.”

After Keirsey, Dr. Jessica Morel spoke. She said she also grew up in a military family and is now a physician who specializes in emergency-room psychology and forensic psychology. She said that her background is unique and can add to the overall diversity of Congress so that health care and mental health policy is made in an informed way. Morel also said that she believes she is a bit more urban and moderate than the other candidates, which would make her more competitive in the general election. 

Chat Slotta told a story about how his daughter is the only one who stands for the Pledge of Allegiance in her class. Slotta, a pastor of 20 years, said there is a “battle for the soul of the country” right now. Throughout the forum, Slotta displayed his pastor’s skillset, quoting scripture and using the entire debate floor rather than speaking from in front of his chair as other candidates generally did. 

Next, former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, who represented the area from 2011 to 2017,  reintroduced herself. During her intro, and throughout the forum, she frequently reminded the audience that she has already spent time in Congress, showing her voting card, the boots she wore on the House floor, and a jar of Harnett County dirt she was given by state Sen. Jim Burgin so she would remember home. Ellmers, a nurse, also talked about working the last couple years on the frontlines during the pandemic. In the straw poll, Ellmers came in second with 10% of the vote. 

One notable statement from Ellmers during the forum came on the topic of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Bo Hines. Ellmers said she did not think Trump made the best pick, but also said, “I still call him President Trump because when we talk about the 2020 election, I personally don’t believe that was a legitimate outcome.” 

Keirsey responded to the question by saying, “Donald Trump might have gotten some bad advice on this race, so I ask you guys to make your best judgment on who is the best candidate to send up to Washington.”

Morel said, “The one thing I would criticize about some of [Trump’s] endorsements this time around is that I don’t think he took the opportunity to speak with all of the candidates before he made the decision of who he was going to endorse.” 

Woodhouse asked by show of hands if anyone would vote in favor of a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over Ukraine and then if anyone planned on not voting for U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, currently the minority leader, to lead the House if Republicans win a majority in November. Nobody raised their hands after either question.

Woodhouse also asked about what would solve the immigration system, how to challenge Big Tech without violating free-market principles, and how the candidates planned to represent both the urban areas of Wake County and the more rural areas to the south.

Hines’ absence was a big point of discussion among those in attendance at the forum. 

One Harnett County voter there to hear the candidates debate told Carolina Journal, “That was [Hines’] call. People like that, I get the impression that he looked around and said, ‘There aren’t enough people here for me. I can do better elsewhere.’ Well, go.”

The voter, named Mike, then added, “He might regret that. … Just because Trump endorsed him doesn’t mean he’s the best one.”

Carolina Journal spoke to Hines’ campaign on March 21 and was told that Hines had been present before the event speaking with local elected officials. After that, the campaign decided that he would not debate at the county convention, choosing to leave for a luncheon with volunteers and a local small businessman in Lillington.