News: CJ Exclusives

Six Runoff Elections Possible for Council of State Offices

GOP nominees for lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor and others still are up in the air

After North Carolina’s primary elections May 8, it still is unclear who the Republican nominees for five powerful executive offices will be. The Democratic nominee for state labor commissioner also has yet to be decided.

The Council of State is a group of popularly elected executive offices in North Carolina — including lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of labor, superintendent of public instruction, state treasurer and state auditor. It is separate from the North Carolina Cabinet, which is appointed by the governor.

While Council of State races typically don’t draw as much public interest as gubernatorial and legislative races, the winners of the nine offices will have highly influential positions in the executive branch.

The runoff election will be July 17.

Lieutenant governor

The five-way Republican primary race for lieutenant governor ended with no clear winner.

Architect Dan Forest took the lead with 33 percent of the vote, with Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley and state Rep. Dale Folwell trailing close behind, earning 24.8 percent and 24.3 percent of the vote, respectively.

As the count is not yet certified, it is unclear whether Folwell will be eligible for a recount. Because Forest did not get 40 percent, whoever comes in second will have the right to request a runoff election.

The winner of the runoff will face the winner of the Democratic primary, former state personnel director Linda Coleman, in November. Coleman received heavy support from the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Historically, Democrats have done very well in the race for lieutenant governor, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at North Carolina State University. That, combined with the fact that it is unclear who the Republican challenger will be, gives Coleman an advantage.

As many pollsters have predicted Republican Pat McCrory will win the race for governor in November, “it’s highly plausible we could end up with a Republican governor and Democratic lieutenant governor,” he noted.

Secretary of state

With only 35.9 percent of the vote, Republican frontrunner for secretary of state Ed Goodwin, chairman of the Chowan County Board of Commissioners, could face a runoff challenge from former Wake County Commissioner Kenn Gardner, who got 29.8 percent of the vote.

UNC-Greensboro business school professor Michael Beitler came in third in the four-way primary, with 24.2 percent. Making the secretary of state’s office more friendly to businesses was the main issue in the primary campaign.

The Republican nominee will face the Democratic incumbent, Elaine Marshall.

State auditor

Wake County school board member Debra Goldman came in first place in the five-way Republican primary race for state auditor, taking 34.4 percent of the vote. The runner up, economic development consultant Greg Dority, who got 23.8 percent, could challenge her to a runoff.

The winner will go up against Democratic incumbent Auditor Beth Wood in November.

State treasurer

Incumbent Janet Cowell was the clear winner of the Democratic primary race for state treasurer, with 76.6 percent of the vote.

She will face the winner of the Republican primary, Steve Royal, an accountant, in November.

School superintendent

There likely will be a runoff election for the Republican nominee for state schools’ superintendent. In the primary, Wake County school board member John Tedesco got 28.4 percent of the vote, while Richard Alexander got 24.3 percent. Alexander, a special education teacher from Monroe, said during the campaign he would back a constitutional amendment eliminating the elected superintendent position and allow the governor to appoint a schools’ chief.

Tedesco has asked Alexander not to request a runoff.

The winner will take on Democratic incumbent June Atkinson in the general election.

Commissioner of agriculture

Democratic primary winner Walter Smith, a poultry farmer from Yadkin County, will run against GOP incumbent Steve Troxler in the general election. Troxler defeated Bill McManus by a 2-to-1 margin.

Commissioner of labor

The Democratic primary race for Commissioner of Labor is likely to result in a runoff race between former Commissioner John Brooks, who got 37.2 percent of the vote, and Marlowe Foster, a drug-company lobbyist, who got 33 percent.

The winner will face Republican incumbent Cherie Berry.

Commissioner of insurance

Former state House co-speaker Richard Morgan got 37 percent of the vote in the Republican primary race for commissioner of insurance. He may face a runoff challenge by retired insurance executive Mike Causey, who got 35.1 percent.

The winner will run against Democratic incumbent Wayne Goodwin in November.

State attorney general

Democratic incumbent Attorney General Roy Cooper had no primary challenger and will be running unopposed in the general election.

Runoffs

There are two big differences between a primary race and a runoff race, Taylor said.

A runoff election is a “two-horse race,” decided by a much smaller electorate,” he said.

The marriage amendment brought a lot of voters out for the primary election, he said. The runoff ballot will be much shorter, with fewer decisions to make, and will generate less media attention and less public interest.

With lower turnout and fewer choices before the voters, the tables could likely turn for the candidates who took first place in the primaries.

Under the radar

Council of State races “don’t really capture the imagination of the public like a gubernatorial race, or even perhaps some state legislative races, would,” Taylor said. But they should.

While the governor ultimately “calls the shots” on general matters of policy, Council of State members have significant influence on policy in the area of their jurisdiction, he said.

Anyone working in the agricultural industry, not to mention consumers of the industry, should care about who heads the Department of Agriculture, he said. Likewise, anyone working in the insurance industry, or anyone affected by insurance rates, should care about who the Commissioner of Insurance is.

While some people have never heard of the office of state auditor, it also is an important position, Taylor said. “The auditor oversees the government and is charged with identifying waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The public also doesn’t hear much about the office of lieutenant governor, “but as Walter Dalton demonstrated Tuesday, it can be a quick route to becoming a serious gubernatorial candidate,” he added.

Turnover is rare in Council of State races. Incumbents have significant advantages because there usually is not much information available about either candidate.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.