This week, three North Carolina counties rejected election protests from House incumbent Michael Wray, D-Northhampton, who cited irregularities in the March 5 primary election, ones he says could have changed the outcome. Wray was defeated by primary challenger Rodney Pierce by just 35 votes, or three tenths of a percent (0.3%), so now North Carolina House District 27 primary race is headed to a recount as early as Thursday. However, there is a lot more to that story, as Wray swims upstream in his own party.

Wray is not unfamiliar with the political battlefield, but this time some of his partisan teammates have become his adversaries. Fellow Democrats and groups from the left wing of their party, like Carolina Forward, targeted Wray in the primary for occasionally voting with Republicans. While certainly not conservatives, he and Rep. Cecil Brockman, D- Guilford, did vote with the Republican majority on issues like charter schools, the state budget, and banning gender-transition surgeries for minors.

Their willingness to reach across the aisle drew support from Carolina Leadership Coalition, a political action committee that counts Republicans among its leadership. The group sent out mailers in Wray and Brockman’s districts praising their impact for their communities. Democrats and some in the media counted this support as Republican “dark money meddling” in the primary election.  

However, is it “meddling” for a PAC to support a candidate with whom they find areas of agreement? I argue that this should actually happen more often.

Political tribalism is destructive not just for society but for the policy-making process. There was a time when elected officials were tolerated, even encouraged, to vote their conscience and their constituency, not just their party.

Don’t get me wrong, meddling does happen. Our own Gov. Roy Cooper, as chair of the Democratic Governor’s Association, did just that in 2022. The DGA spent millions of dollars on ads to support Trump-endorsed candidates in the primary who they thought could not win the general election, using their considerable assets to put a thumb on the scale of state-level Republican primaries across the country.

The difference here is that the Carolina Leadership Coalition is supporting candidates with whom they find some, albeit limited, policy on which they agree. That is not meddling, it is consensus-building.

Wray and Brockman, appear less worried less about their political label and more about the policy they are passing for North Carolina. Tribalistic objections to that philosophy are why people mistrust government and politicians. If an organization finds itself in the power seat where their donations can impact policy, they should be focused on finding those candidates with whom they share a policy goal, regardless of party.

Parties, meantime, should take note of what we see unfolding in these primary races. It is not a good look. Just ask Kirk deViere or Elmer Floyd. Both represented Cumberland County at different times and found themselves at the receiving end of well-funded primary opponents. Cooper actively campaigned against them because, at times, they voted the values of their constituents, and not just their party.

Parties should keep their tent large enough and flexible enough to allow members to represent their communities. If they do not, voters will do it for them. Unaffiliated voters are the largest group of voters in North Carolina, outpacing both major parties, and will hold the deciding vote in 2024.