News: CJ Exclusives

Challengers hope to knock off incumbents in congressional primary battles

First-term 13th District Rep. Ted Budd, who won a 17-way primary in 2016, in odd turn faces no primary opponent

This story was updated at 2:12 on Friday, March 2

Six of North Carolina’s 10 Republican congressional incumbents have primary challengers, and two of three Democrats are being challenged on May 8. If history is a guide, unseating any of them would be a long-shot upset.

“In postwar American history from 1946 on more than 98 percent of House incumbents who seek renomination do in fact get renominated” to run in the general election, Kyle Kondik said on Thursday, March 1. He analyzes U.S. House of Representatives elections for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, where he is managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter that tracks campaigns and elections.

But some North Carolina challengers could beat the odds in Republican primary contests.

“Walter Jones has always had primary challenges, some credible in the last couple of cycles. It looks like he has a credible challenger again.”

Jones is running in the 3rd Congressional District. “[Three-term incumbent] Robert Pittenger also has a pretty serious primary challenge” in the 9th Congressional District.

Jones is in a three-way race with Phil Law of Jacksonville, a tough 2016 challenger, and Scott Dacey of New Bern. Pittenger is again being challenged by the Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte, who finished second by just 134 votes in the 2016 primary, and Clarence Goins of Fayetteville.

Republican incumbents who drew no primary opponents and will advance directly to the general election are Reps. Mark Walker, 6th District; David Rouzer, 7th District; Richard Hudson, 8th District; and Ted Budd, 13th District.

Democrat G.K. Butterfield has no opposition in the 1st District.

Budd’s lack of competition is of note because, in 2016, that primary race featured 17 candidates. That primary also was remarkable because it was moved from the scheduled March 15 date to June 7. Only 7.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

The date change was prompted when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina struck down the 1st and 12th districts as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. By the time the General Assembly redrew the maps, and the court approved them, it was too late to hold the primary as originally scheduled.

The three-judge panel ordered the General Assembly to redraw congressional maps again this year, this time saying they were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. But the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the lower court’s decision until it had an opportunity to rule on an appeal from the state.

Patrick McHenry, R-10th District, is in the largest congressional primary field with five challengers. They are: Gina Collias of Kings Mountain; Jeff Gregory of Shelby; Ira Roberts of Hickory; Seth Blankenship of Swannanoa; and Albert Lee Wiley Jr. of Salter Path.

“Having a bunch of challengers is actually not that bad for an incumbent,” Kondik said. Anti-incumbent votes might be split, he said. Under a North Carolina law effective this year, McHenry would advance to the general election so long as he finished first with at least 30 percent of the primary vote. McHenry won with 78 percent in a four-way race in 2016.

Rep. George Holding, R-2nd District, faces Gregory Chesser of Louisburg in the primary. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-5th District, faces Cortland Meader Jr. of Mocksville, and Dillon Gentry of Banner Elk. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-11th District. got a last-minute challenge from Charles Archerd of Asheville. While Archerd beat the filing deadline at the county election board, his paperwork arrived later in the day at the state office, and was not included in the initial state list.

Rep. David Price, D-4th District, is opposed by Richard Watkins of Chapel Hill, and Michelle Laws of Durham. Rep. Alma Adams, D-12th District, faces Gabriel Ortiz of Matthews, Patrick Register of Charlotte, and Keith Young of Asheville. Price ran unopposed in the 2016 primary. Adams won a seven-way race.

A list of all primary contests and candidates can be found here.

Kondik isn’t completely discounting congressional Democratic primary upsets.

Democrats have been more disciplined and deferential to party leadership in part because they held the White House, and because they had a clear leader in President Obama.

“Now the party doesn’t have a clear leader … so I wonder if there’s going to be this sort of insurgent move on the Democratic side,” Kondik said. He also is unsure if the anti-incumbent among Republicans may dissipate.

While Kondik has low expectations for primary surprises, the Nov. 6 general election might yield unanticipated results.

“I think Democrats will be energized this year,” Kondik said. “Obviously, the North Carolina map is drawn to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats, but I think some of these districts are potentially vulnerable in a good Democratic cycle.”

Jones, Pittenger, and Budd are favored to win their primaries, but could be targeted by Democrats in November as potential pickup seats, Kondik said. Budd in particular could have a tough general election if philanthropist Kathy Manning defeats Adam Coker in the Democratic primary. Both are from Greensboro. Manning has amassed a sizeable war chest for her run.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates all three of those seats as “likely Republican” wins, while the other seven GOP districts and all three Democratic seats are rated “safe.”

“I think anger is a great motivator in politics,” Kondik said. “The party that doesn’t hold the White House can be more motivated.”

Democrats have overperformed in a handful of special congressional elections, and more so in some state-level special elections, he said. Better turnout and performance in those races are linked to a midterm environment that “probably is going to have at least something of a Democratic lean, and maybe big Democrat lean.”

That doesn’t mean Democrats will reclaim control of the House, he said. It’s even longer odds for Democrats to win a majority in the Senate because they must defend 26 of 34 contested seats. But they could pick up seats in state gubernatorial and legislative races.

North Carolina legislative races should be more competitive than ever in this year’s general election. For what may be the first time, both major parties have candidates on all 120 House and 50 Senate ballots, based on filings that closed Wednesday, Feb. 28.

That doesn’t mean every race would be contested Nov. 6.

“If [qualification] questions remain or if an issue comes to light after a candidate has filed, candidate challenges are possible,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections. “These must generally be filed within 10 business days of the close of candidate filing.”

County boards of elections check candidates’ required party affiliation and voter registration, and the burden of proof is on the candidate. Appeals are handled by the state board, and then the Court of Appeals. A state board isn’t seated because of the ongoing court battle between Gov. Roy Cooper and the General Assembly.

Although the deadline to withdraw notice of candidacy was Feb. 23, it’s possible some listed candidates will decide later not to campaign.

It also is possible more candidates will end up running in the general election.

“Petition signatures for unaffiliated candidates for state House or state Senate are due to the county board of elections by noon on primary election day,” Gannon said. Write-in candidates must submit their petitions by July 24 or Aug. 8, depending on whether it is a single- or multi-county contest.

The Green Party has submitted documents to be recognized as a political party in North Carolina, Gannon said. The application must wait until the State Board of Elections has members and is operating. Nominees of a new political party are appointed by party convention.