In politics, timing really is everything.
That’s the key takeaway for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District this election season, says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
In December, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-11th District, announced his decision to leave Congress as the deadline for candidate filing loomed. It was critical timing and resulted in a “massive, politically inexperienced field vying for the seat,” Cooper said. A dozen GOP candidates filed to run in the March 3 primary. The top finishers, Lynda Bennett and Madison Cawthorn, now face a May 12 runoff to decide who will contest Democratic candidate Moe Davis in the November General Election.
But thanks to timing, there’s another twist. On March 6, Meadows was named President Trump’s pick for White House chief of staff. The move spawned new questions about strategy for Gov. Roy Cooper, who is tasked with announcing a special election to fill Meadows’ seat until a permanent candidate is elected to serve the term that begins in the 117th Congress.
That’s where things get interesting, WCU’s Cooper said.
“For the first time, it is Governor Cooper who can gaze at the calendar with hopes of finding the most politically advantageous moment to act.”
If the governor waits to call a special election, he’ll be attacked for leaving the 11th District without representation for “an extended period of time,” Cooper said. On the flipside, if he calls a special election sooner, the governor will give the 11th District’s Republican candidate another advantage moving into the General Election.
“There are clear benefits — and drawbacks — to both strategies,” Cooper said. “Moving up the date would allow Cooper to make the case that he wants to make sure Western North Carolina, a region that often feels left out of mainstream politics, is represented in Congress. Placing it concurrent with the November election, however, would reduce the power the Republicans have in North Carolina’s congressional delegation for nine months.”
Parties can choose what candidates to place in special elections, Cooper said, a fact that raises other questions about Republicans’ political strategy.
“There has been a lot of speculation that the timing of Meadows’ decision has fractured the Republican Party in the west,” he said. “Would the party put up the winner of the primary election in an effort to gain that person an incumbency advantage entering the general election, or would they offer a candidate who is not a candidate for the office, but who is respected within the party?”
If the parties choose their nominees for the full term to run also in the special election, the winner of the special will earn a couple of months’ seniority in the next Congress over other first-term representatives. That seniority can offer an advantage for committee appointments and staffing decisions.
Politics aside, the whole process requires a heavy lift from county boards of elections in the district, he added.
“Elections aren’t free, and special elections are no exception.”
The 11th District isn’t the first to run a special election concurrent with a general one, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. In November 2014, former Rep. Mel Watt, D-12th District, resigned from Congress and took an appointment at the Federal Housing Finance Agency. A November special election was held to fill the vacancy — then-Gov. Pat McCrory opted to run the contest alongside that year’s general election. The winner of both the special and general elections was Democrat Alma Adams, who was a member of the General Assembly at the time.
The 12th District sets a precedent for the 11th. But the whole situation is likely to confuse voters, Taylor and Cooper say.
Quick, clear, and concise communication is key, Cooper said. The state must tell voters when the special election is scheduled, who is eligible to vote, and how they can vote.
“The sooner Governor Cooper can provide answers to those questions, the clearer this will be for voters — and for the boards of elections who must implement this choice,” Chris Cooper said.