There were many big headlines from the May 17 congressional primaries in North Carolina. Among them were big outside spending, a few contentious races that narrowly evaded a runoff, and an unusually high percentage of unaffiliated voters deciding to take GOP ballots in early voting.
To take the last item first, despite 68% of early voters taking a Democrat ballot in 2020 — and despite early voting generally favoring Democrats — Republicans achieved a nearly 50-50 split with Democrats on ballots statewide. This was largely due to a surge in unaffiliated voters choosing to take Republican ballots. By the end of early voting, 62% of unaffiliated voters had picked a GOP over a Democrat ballot.
While this is not proof that Republicans can count on these voters to remain with the party in the general election, it at least shows unaffiliated voters were motivated to cast their ballots for Republicans. The U.S. Senate race pitting Trump-backed U.S. Rep. Ted Budd against former Gov. Pat McCrory and others, which Budd handily won, likely caused some of the imbalance. This is due to the fact that the Democratic Senate primary, which former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley won with 81% of the vote, was not nearly as competitive.
“For the first time ever, we have more unaffiliated voters registered in the state of North Carolina [than Democrats or Republicans],” Brad Crone, a Raleigh-based political consultant, said during the Carolina Journal live primary coverage. “There are 2,532,000 independents, 2,198,000 Republicans, and 2,493,000 Democrats. There’s a shift taking place with the voters. Will we see that shift take place at the ballot box?”
The panelists also considered that part of the motivation for the high Republican voting numbers among unaffiliateds could be because of some controversial figures in the congressional Republican primaries, meaning they could have been voting against rather than for a particular candidate.
One of those controversial figures was western N.C. freshman Rep. Madison Cawthorn. The 26-year-old Henderson native suffered a dramatic loss in support from local voters after a number of scandals, including making allusions to drug use and orgies by other members of Congress, bringing a loaded gun to an airport checkpoint, driving infractions, calling the president of Ukraine a “thug,” and sexual videos of him and friends.
State Sen. Chuck Edwards was able to capitalize off of Cawthorn’s slipping approval, defeating his Hendersonville neighbor 33.4% to 31.9% (a 1.5% victory), narrowly escaping the 30% threshold for a runoff and the 1% margin for a recount. Edwards was able to cast himself as the only candidate with a real shot of defeating Cawthorn in a crowded field of challengers. His list of prominent endorsements — including U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, and N.C. Senate Leader Phil Berger — bolstered that view.
Another 26-year-old Trump-endorsed candidate, Bo Hines, narrowly won in a crowded field in NC-13, the state’s most competitive district for the general election. Hines was criticized by other candidates for his age, lack of experience, and short relationship with the district, but in the end, he was able to earn 32% of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff and secure the GOP nomination. Local businessman DeVan Barber came in second with 23% and attorney Kelly Daughtry came in third with 17%. Hines will face off with Democratic state Sen. Wiley Nickel in November.
Sandy Smith, who cast herself as the MAGA candidate while not being officially endorsed by the former president, also won narrowly over Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson in NC-1, likely the second-most competitive district after NC-13. Just like in NC-13, a crowded field and the 30% runoff rule came into play, with Smith winning over Roberson 31% to 27%.
Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation, spoke with CBS-17 on the 2017 change from a 40% threshold to a 30% threshold, saying, “The legislature at the time thought, ‘30% is enough. You don’t need to go through the expense and trouble of having a second election just because somebody didn’t make the 40%.’”
But as Kokai pointed out, in this primary alone, this rule change led to five congressional primary winners narrowly escaping from often very-crowded fields.
Looking at the other congressional races, Republican victors included newcomers Christine Villaverde in NC-2, Courtney Geels in NC-4, Christian Castelli in NC-6, Tyler Lee in NC-12, and Pat Harrigan in NC-14, and incumbents Greg Murphy in NC-3, Virginia Foxx in NC-5, David Rouzer in NC-7, Dan Bishop in NC-8, Richard Hudson in NC-9, and Patrick McHenry in NC-10.
Among Democrats, the most notable race was likely the Triangle-area NC-4 victory of state Sen. Valerie Foushee, an African American who has served Orange County in elected office for years, over Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam, a controversial candidate endorsed by members of the far-left “Squad,” as well as by socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In NC-1, the victory of state Sen. Don Davis over former state Sen. Erica Davis was also noteworthy. Davis has long been considered among the most conservative Democrats in the state Senate, and he will now face off with Sandy Smith for the competitive rural, northeastern N.C. seat.
In the other races, Democrat victors included newcomers Barbara Gaskins in NC-3, Kyle Parrish in NC-5, state Rep. Charles Graham in NC-7, Scott Huffman in NC-8, state Sen. Ben Clark in NC-9, Pam Genant in NC-10, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara in NC-11, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson in NC-14, and incumbents Deborah Ross in NC-2, Kathy Manning in NC-6, and Alma Adams in NC-12.
The last big story of the night was the large amount of out-of-state money that poured into these North Carolina congressional primaries. Both parties had examples, with Hines in NC-13 winning his GOP primary and Democrat Foushee in NC-4 winning hers after major spending by outside money on behalf of their candidacies.
Hines benefited from $2 million of spending from outside the state, according to WRAL, including $1.5 million by Club for Growth Action. The group also spent $12 million to lift U.S. Rep Ted Budd past former Gov. Pat McCrory in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Both Hines and Budd were also endorsed by former President Donal Trump.
On the Democratic side, Foushee benefited from even more outside spending than Hines, with $2.8 million spent in support of her candidacy. Much of that spending was from a pro-Israel PAC called the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). With many progressives critical of Israel and of “dark money” spending, the money became controversial in the campaign.