One of the hottest races in the upcoming election will be for the N.C. Senate District 24, where incumbent Sen. Tony Foriest will once again square off against Republican challenger Rick Gunn.

Foriest narrowly defeated Gunn in the 2008 election, winning by 3,500 votes — a relatively narrow margin given the “Obama effect” that generated Democratic landslides elsewhere.

With those results in mind, Gunn believes he has a real chance to take the seat this time around.

“There’s a point in time when it becomes crippling when businesses are burdened with government over regulation and red tape. I hear horror stories every day,” Gunn said in a phone interview. “The business community statewide — business organizations, individual companies — have really embraced this race and have become supportive. They feel like my business experience is what’s needed in the state Senate right now.”

With the state facing a projected $3 billion budget deficit next fiscal year, Gunn believes it is time to “revamp, not reform” government spending.

“I do not think there is one segment of government that is not going to be required to look hard at duplication of services,” Gunn said. “We can’t have this open pocketbook for every pet project.”

Gunn added that the revamping of government spending practices will help create the business climate that will attract employers bringing quality, high-paying jobs.

Such a climate would include a competitive tax structure and regulatory climate that wouldn’t cripple business, he said.

But Gunn said he also is in favor of offering economic incentives to companies looking to locate in North Carolina, although he added that incentives should be “second tier” to a favorable business and regulatory climate.

“As long as it’s tied to jobs, as long as you are earning that incentive, as long as there are safeguards to protect the taxpayer, I’m all for investing a dollar to get two,” Gunn said.

Alamance County — the heart of District 24 — has been the center of controversy for its participation in the federal 287(g) program, which allows local authorities to hold suspected illegal immigrants until their status can be checked out with the immigration authorities.

Gunn said he supports the re-election of Sheriff Terry Johnson, who has been the target of immigration advocacy groups that oppose the county’s participation in 287(g). When asked if he would support an Arizona-style illegal immigration law in North Carolina, Gunn said he has not studied the Arizona law enough to have a clear perspective.

Gunn did, however, say he was “very disappointed in the efforts of our federal government to secure the border.”

Foriest’s recent voting record stands in contrast to Gunn’s conservative platform, according to a John W. Pope Civitas Institute analysis. Civitas ranked Foriest 33rd out of 50 senators in its 2010 conservative rankings, giving him a conservative effectiveness score of 5.0 out of 100.

“I don’t expect a good endorsement from Civitas or any other conservative group,” Foriest said in a phone interview. “I don’t think that’s an accurate depiction of Tony Foriest, because I don’t believe in wasting money and doing things we don’t need to do. But there are so many services I think we as a state need to provide.”

When asked about the looming $3 billion budget deficit, Foriest said “nothing’s going to be so sacred that we won’t take a look at it.

“I wish I had a crystal ball, because we don’t know exactly how we’re going to do it because we don’t know exactly what the figure will be. But we’re going to have all options on the table,” he added.

Still, Foriest believes government spending at both the state and federal levels is necessary to help pull the economy out of the current recession.

“A lot of the spending we’re doing is to keep the economy afloat. Without some of the spending, there’s the possibility that we would be much closer to an actual depression rather than a recession,” he said.

Foreist said he believes illegal immigration is a federal issue and is concerned about allegations of profiling by the Alamance County Sheriff’s department.

Foriest also expressed concerns about the county’s participation in the federal 287(g) program.

“Deputies have received training from the federal government, but that does not make them federal agents,” he said. “There is a tendency of people to not really understand the law but take it upon themselves to do things they don’t have the power to do.”

One issue on which Foriest and Gunn are in agreement is economic incentives. Foriest also believes they are necessary given the current climate.

“Economic incentives are not something I personally like,” Foriest said. “But it’s the climate that we’re in, and unless the federal government comes in and says we’re not going to allow anyone to do it, we don’t have a lot of control over what (other states) are going to do. If they’re doing it, the climate puts us in a situation where we’re going to have to do it.”

The Senate 24 race also features a Libertarian Party candidate, Barry Coe.

In a phone interview, Coe said “lack of representation of the principles of liberty” inspired him to enter the race.

Coe’s key issues include a gradual transition to a private education system, ending the death penalty, ending all forced property seizures that is not the result of debt — including eminent domain and municipal annexation.

But most of all, Coe wants to return government to its core function — defending individual freedom.

“I’m going to be a loud, boisterous voice for change in Raleigh. I have no intent of going down to Raleigh and playing their games. I’m going to tell the truth,” Coe said. “I tell people ‘You vote for me, and I’ll do nothing for you. I will allow you to do what you will with what you have, and I won’t get in your way.’”

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.