Speculation has begun over who might run in a special election to succeed Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, whose death Sunday left the 3rd U.S. Congressional District seat vacant. Political observers anticipate a crowded field that includes current state lawmakers and earlier challengers.
Jones, a former five-term state House member, was elected in 2018 to his 13th congressional term, saying it would be his last.
Several prospects put out feelers about a possible 2020 run for an open seat in the Republican district. With Jones’ death, contenders must decide whether they can quickly muster the three essential elements for success: messaging, money, and manpower.
“It would not surprise me to see anywhere between 15 or 20 folks run for this seat,” said former GOP political consultant Larry Shaheen. He compared the potential field to the 2012 Republican primary for the 9th U.S. Congressional District in which 11 candidates ran for an open seat after Republican Sue Myrick’s retirement.
“There’s a lot of consulting firms sniffing around down there,” Shaheen said.
A number of political consultants suggested candidates to Carolina Journal.
The most frequently mentioned possibilities were state legislators: Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow; Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan; Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt; and Rep. Phil Shepard, R-Onslow. N.C. Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Michele Nix was suggested as well, along with Phil Law, Scott Dacey, and Taylor Griffin, each of whom lost Republican primaries to Jones from 2014 to 2018.
The district includes all or parts of Beaufort, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Greene, Hyde, Jones, Lenoir, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Pitt, and Tyrrell counties. The 2018 Cook Partisan Voter Index listed the district with a 12-point Republican advantage.
“The Democrats are working to find a candidate,” said Democratic political consultant Brad Crone. “Until you get redistricting, it’s going to be mighty difficult for a Democrat to get in there and win.” A federal court has ruled North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts unconstitutional, and ordered them redrawn for the 2020 election.
Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills said he hasn’t yet heard of any Democrats willing to test the waters.
Still, Democrats could win a low-turnout special election if they field a candidate who motivates the party’s base, Mills said. But he doesn’t see any current General Assembly Democrats giving up their seats to run for Congress. Democrats’ 2018 legislative wins erased Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in both chambers, and they might be wary about risking those hard-fought gains.
Shaheen said if he had to make the call today, Brown and Steinburg would have the best chances to take the seat.
Historically North Carolina elects congressional representatives who have served in the state Senate, Shaheen said.
The Senate’s large districts often include large areas of a congressional district, providing senators broader name recognition than House members. A candidate lacking Senate experience can win, but will need a lot of money to mount a vigorous campaign, Shaheen said.
One wild card is whether someone working in Washington would come back to North Carolina to run.
Since Jones or his father, a Democrat, have represented the district for all but two years of the past half-century, Shaheen expects a spirited primary.
“There’s going to be a lot of demons that get exorcised in this, a lot of old grudges that people have been waiting to go after,” Shaheen said.
The younger Jones, a Democrat before entering Congress, was well known for his independent streak, often bucking the Republican Party.
“None of us agreed with him all the time, but by golly if nothing else he was consistent, and he loved the district,” said Carl Mischka, chairman of the 3rd Congressional District Republican Party Executive Committee.
“You vote your conscience first, you vote your constituents second, and you vote your party third,” Jones told CJ in a 2014 interview. “When my party is right I support my party. When I don’t think the party is right for the people I represent then I have to make another decision. This, from time to time, gets you into trouble.”