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Drama likely in legislative primaries, Kappler says

Open seats, competitive races, uncertain turnout add new levels of intrigue to midterm contests

Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, previews legislative primaries at a March 5 event in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, previews legislative primaries at a March 5 event in Raleigh. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

The 2018 legislative primary, set for May 8, should provide more drama than usual. That’s the initial assessment of Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan group that tracks elections and campaigns.

More than 500 candidates filed for the General Assembly, with Democrats and Republicans fielding hopefuls effectively in all 170 legislative districts. A higher-than-normal number of lawmaker retirements — along with incumbent House members seeking Senate seats — should boost the number of competitive races. Two races in particular, one involving longtime GOP Sen. Bob Rucho, should generate plenty of statewide interest.

Kappler made these remarks to an audience of lobbyists, business representatives, and election watchers Monday in Raleigh.

The headline for the open seat in Senate District 34 might be “The Return of Rucho,” Kappler said. “He certainly is going to dominate the nuances of this campaign.”

Rucho represented Mecklenburg County in the Senate from 1997-2004, and 2008-16. As co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he was a fierce advocate for Republican tax reform, and led Senate redistricting efforts. He said he has bought a home in south Iredell County to run for the newly configured seat.

Rucho will face A.J. Daoud, who also might have residency issues, Kappler said. Legislative candidates typically must live in their district a year prior to election, but that requirement was waived because of court-ordered redistricting. Daoud, who has held various Republican Party positions and ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2016, reportedly has moved into his funeral home in Yadkin County. Iredell County planning board member Vickie Sawyer and Bill Howell, a member of the Iredell-Statesville school board, are the other candidates.

One unexpectedly contentious race could unfold in House District 11, where incumbent Wake County Democrat Duane Hall has been hit with a series of sexual harassment allegations. Hall has been considered a rising star in the Democratic Party with ambitions for higher office. Kappler said the harassment allegations could cause trouble for Hall, who drew two women challengers, Allison Dahle and Heather Metour.

Hall has defiantly maintained his innocence. He announced Sunday he doesn’t intend to bow out from the campaign or resign from the House despite demands from Gov. Roy Cooper, House colleagues, and party leaders to step aside.

Hall contends N.C. Policy Watch, part of the liberal advocacy group N.C. Justice Center, is trafficking in gossip and untruths. He said the charges are a personal attack stemming from a former romantic relationship with Megan Glazier, daughter of Justice Center Executive Director Rick Glazier. Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield called Hall’s comments outrageous and false, and stood by his organization’s reporting.

Kappler said Metour’s candidacy adds intrigue to the race. Cary resident Brad Cooper said, during his murder trial, he was in a romantic relationship with her. Cooper was accused of strangling his wife Nancy in 2008. Her body was found at a Cary construction site. Metour didn’t testify at the trial.

Whoever emerges from the primary should be favored to win the general election, Kappler said. NCFEF rates the district heavily Democratic, based on voter registration and previous voting behavior.

Kappler gave an overview of a number of legislative and congressional races, and said this election likely has the most participants ever — 325 House, 148 Senate, and 62 U.S. House candidates.

Unaffiliated and write-in candidates will boost that number. Unaffiliated candidates must file their petition signatures by primary day. Write-in candidates must file by July 24 or Aug. 8, depending on whether they are running in a single-county or multi-county district.

Democrats have candidates running for all 170 legislative seats. Republicans fielded candidates in 169 primaries, but Kappler said the GOP is backing unaffiliated candidate Kenneth Fontenot in House District 24, so effectively would have every race covered.

There will be 51 contested House primaries — 26 Republican and 25 Democratic.

There will be 23 Senate races with more than one candidate — 12 Republican and 11 Democratic.

Those competitive races feature 18 Republican and seven Democratic incumbents in the House; nine Republican and three Democratic incumbents in the Senate.

Because this is a midterm election, Kappler predicted uneven turnout. “You’re going to have hot local contests” involving sheriffs and other officials that could drive voters to the polls more than national or state influences.

While many districts continue to favor one political party or the other, Kappler said the trend in North Carolina has moved toward more competitive races. Half of N.C.’s voting population was not born here. Those transplants may be unaware of or unfazed by the state’s political history. The historic West-East divide is being supplanted by a rural-urban split. The suburbs again will be the biggest battleground for swing votes.

While many political observers believe the midterm election will follow historic precedent and be a good year for the party that does not control the White House, Kappler can’t say how events will play out in North Carolina.

“Are we a wave, are we a trickle, or are we something in between?” he said. “Waves don’t always crash evenly,” so North Carolina might not follow national trends.

“President Trump will cast a very long shadow over all of this,” Kappler said, and the side most invigorated by his politics — fans or foes — could sway outcomes.

The shape of the economy, foreign affairs, and potential international crises could play an electoral role, Kappler said.

At the state level, changing demographics, Cooper’s potential to lure national party spending on Democratic races, and whether Republicans use the upcoming short session to place GOP-friendly constitutional amendments on the ballot to attract voters are worth watching, Kappler said.