Anticipated low voter turnout, new geographic boundaries, 23 candidates, and a court-induced, drastically compressed campaign schedule present a fascinating political script, making it impossible to handicap the June 7 Republican primary for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, political science academics say.
There are 17 Republicans vying for the seat. Five Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination, and one independent candidate is running.
“To use the old cliche, it’s almost the perfect storm for an undemocratic, ‘small d,’ election. But that’s what we’ve got,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. “This is bad for the voters. It’s bad for the candidates,” and poses the greatest challenge to Republicans running in such a crowded field.
“The political science literature doesn’t have a model for this” in assessing a favorite for the GOP nomination, McLennan said. “I think the chance of [electing] someone who’s untested is higher than normal.”
If there’s any edge, he said, it might go to incumbent state lawmakers who have some name recognition — Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, and Reps. John Blust, R-Guilford, and Julia Howard, R-Davie.
“I think a lot of this is going to be the friends-and-neighbors phenomenon, where certain people do well in their home territory, and the battle is going to be for splitting up the rest of the counties in different ways,” said Michael Bitzer, provost and professor of politics and history at Catawba College.
“Could the winner end up with 15 to 20 percent of the vote? Could be,” Bitzer said.
“It’s almost friends and family” that could tip a low-turnout election spread among so many candidates, High Point University political science professor Martin Kifer said in half jest.
Elected officials “who have at least some of their constituency within the district” that supported their past electoral campaigns would do well to identify them and aggressively solicit their votes, Kifer said.
Since it’s impossible to gauge voter support in a newly drawn district with so many candidacies in play, “we don’t know how many votes it’s actually going to take to win this election,” he said.
Kifer, who is director of High Point University’s Survey Research Center, said the dynamics of this race steered him away from doing a public opinion poll.
“As somebody who thinks about how to sample in polls, it gives me a lot of pause. You just have to be so careful about who you’re sampling because you’ve got these multiple overlapping state legislative districts, you’ve got some people who are known in some places and not others, and so unless you do that right you risk getting some really strange results,” Kifer said.
“To me it’s sort of unpollable,” he said, adding another important reason.
“Because you’ve got this primary at this odd time, the likelihood that there’s going to be any kind of turnout is pretty low. So how you identify who the likely voters are sounds absolutely so daunting that it would keep me away from doing a poll,” Kifer said. “You’d be getting a very rough set of estimates.”
The General Assembly moved the congressional primary from March 15 to June 7 in response to a ruling in February by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina that struck down the state’s 1st and 12th congressional districts.
The judges ruled too many minority voters were packed into those districts, a charge the Republican-led legislature denied. By the time the court decision came out, and maps were redrawn without taking any racial factors into consideration, it was too late to hold the primary as originally scheduled.
Kifer noted that both the presidential campaign and 13th District had 17 GOP candidates, but presidential contenders “had a year to sort it out” with the help of a series of televised debates. “In this case we just have a couple of months” in a congressional race garnering little media coverage for the candidates to make their case, gain name recognition, and build support.
“In the end what you’re doing is getting a real test of someone’s ability to get votes early and quickly,” Kifer said.
“I would be hard-pressed to say that any voter is going to walk into the voting booth in early June and know all of the candidates and all of the positions,” Bitzer said.
“It’s a very compressed schedule, and probably the folks that benefit from getting an edge on fundraising are those who either are well-established and already in elected office, or who potentially have deep connections within the district,” Bitzer said. He doesn’t see any of the candidates holding that edge.
“Modern campaigns generally tend to be fought through the air, and that’s media,” he said. “I think this will be more of a ground war game, pounding the pavement, being at local events.”
Kifer, Bitzer, and McLennan all said fundraising would be a challenging issue due to the dynamics of this race.
However, the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks outside election spending, shows the Club for Growth PAC has spent $285,053, and all of it has gone to gun range owner Ted Budd. Conversely, Budd reported no receipts on his first-quarter Federal Elections Commission campaign finance report.
About half of the candidates filed no first-quarter reports or showed no receipts. Campaigns reporting receipts were Kay Daly, $107,068; Brock, $104,500; George Rouco, $72,340; Paul Henning, $28,175; Howard, $15,340; Harry Warren, $15,000; Matt McCall, $14,980; Jason Walser, $11,740; and Blust, $11,200.
The confusion created by the courts in this election “is having major ramifications all across the state,” McLennan said.
“We’d like to think that the courts are immune from politics, but they’re not,” McLennan said. Recognizing the upheaval caused in this case could give some judges in future situations “pause not to disrupt a campaign schedule. …They may choose to kind of let the election go before forcing any change.”