News: CJ Exclusives

Dozens of Lawmakers Face Smooth Path to Election

More than 50 run with no primary or general-election opponents as filing ends

RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers are among high-profile Republican incumbents who have drawn Republican primary opponents, but 54 other candidates were, in effect, elected to the General Assembly on Monday because nobody chose to run against them from either party when filing ended.

According to the State Board of Elections filing lists, 62 Republican candidates in the House have no primary opponents, and 22 of them will run uncontested in the general election, barring write-in or unaffiliated candidate challenges. There are 74 Democrats with no primary opponents, and 19 of them will face no challenger in the general election.

In the Senate, 36 Republicans are unopposed in the primary, and 29 Democrats are unchallenged. Of those, 13 candidates will be unchallenged in the general election as well — nine Republicans and four Democrats.

Voting patterns over the past few election cycles “seem to show that for a significant number of these districts, the likelihood is that the partisan leaning of the district precludes any real sense of political competition, which is a key and necessary factor in any healthy democratic republic,” said Michael Bitzer, provost and professor of politics and history at Catawba College.

“Elections for representation are supposed to be not just a battle of personalities, but of ideas as well, and when one political idea or allegiance dominates a particular district, I can’t see how that is a healthy environment for our governing system,” Bitzer said.

The numbers could represent constituent satisfaction with their current representation, or that the power of incumbency or voting behavior of these districts “is so tilted in one party’s direction or the other that the futility of having a contested campaign is pretty high,” Bitzer said.

Neither Bitzer, nor Joe Stewart, executive director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation — a group that closely monitors state elections — believes McCrory is in jeopardy of being upset by former state Rep. Robert Brawley of Iredell County or Charles Moss, a Randolph County pastor.

Also running for the seat are state Attorney General Roy Cooper and Durham attorney Ken Spaulding, both Democras, and Libertarian Lon Cecil, a retired engineer from High Point.

“I don’t think McCrory should face any true competition in the primary, but an incumbent always prefers a ‘pass’ in this election to start gearing up for what looks like a truly competitive general election, assuming his opponent is Roy Cooper,” Bitzer said.

“I think definitively we should expect large sums in support of and opposition to the gubernatorial candidates,” Stewart said of campaign spending. The contest has been labeled a nationally vital race.

“Usurper-type candidates” such as Brawley generally are unable to raise the kind of money or assemble a tactical organization “to mount a significant challenge,” Stewart said.

There are nine candidates in the U.S. Senate race including Burr. He faces Republican challengers Larry Holmquist, Paul Wright, and 2014 U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Greg Brannon. Democratic challengers are Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, former Wake County state Rep. Deborah Ross, Durham businessman Kevin Griffin, and Ernest Reeves, a retired U.S. Army officer from Greenville. Libertarian Sean Haugh, also a 2014 U.S. Senate candidate, filed to run for Burr’s seat.

“It will be interesting to watch the dynamics of how the Republican presidential primary contest plays out down the ballot,” Bitzer said.

If Brannon taps into “the discontent with establishment Republicans” similar to the inroads made by GOP presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, “it might make for a more colorful challenge to the incumbent,” Bitzer said. But Burr remains the early favorite “simply by the power of incumbency and fundraising capability he would have.”

The real question is who will gain traction on the Democratic side, he said.

“Conventional wisdom seems to put Deborah Ross as the front runner, but with low name recognition by all the candidates, the need for fundraising and organization at the grass roots will be key,” Bitzer said.

Brannon’s decision to run “was the best kept secret in this election cycle so far,” Stewart said.

“Most national pundits described Burr as one of the most vulnerable” U.S. senators, but Democrats “have not been able to produce a strong candidate” to take advantage of that, Stewart said.

Ellmers faces four GOP challengers in Kay Daly, Jim Duncan, Tim D’Annunzio, and Frank Roche. Adam Coker is the lone Democratic opponent.

“If Ellmers was facing a well-financed, well-recognized, single challenger for her primary, that’s probably the best setting for a truly competitive primary,” Bitzer said. But four primary challengers indicates opposition to Ellmers “could be fractured, thus giving her a way to split the opposition’s votes towards a renomination.”

Of 10 GOP congressional incumbents, only three — Reps. Richard Hudson (8th District), Mark Meadows (11th District), and George Holding (13th District) — drew no primary opponents. Democratic political strategist Thomas Mills of Carrboro filed to challenge Hudson; even though Mills does not live in Hudson’s district, Mills filed so that the incumbent would not run unopposed.

Rising voter discontent in both parties could lend unpredictability to the primary races, as political outsiders gain appeal, Stewart said. If the parties haven’t chosen their presidential candidates by March 15, that could produce a different mix of voters. And the $2 billion bond referendum on the ballot also could influence who turns out to vote.

“We’re excited to see so many great candidates begin campaigns to move North Carolina forward,” Patsy Keever, North Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman, said of Democratic candidates.

“The Republican politicians currently running Raleigh simply have the wrong priorities,” Keever said. “It’s time to put good jobs, quality schools, and middle class families first again. I look forward to working with all of these great candidates.”

“Republican leadership has helped create more than 230,000 jobs, implemented historic tax reform and is making North Carolina a top state for both business and employment. It’s no wonder there’s a draw for more Republican leadership in North Carolina,” said NCGOP Chairman Hasan Harnett.

“We are already hard at work to elect Republican candidates in 2016, like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who could become the first Republican in North Carolina’s history to be re-elected to the post,” Harnett said. Forest has no GOP rivals.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.