WAXHAW — The pavement steamed in the summer heat as Dan Forests campaign bus rolled into this small town along the states southern border for a Fourth of July parade.
The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and his family walked alongside an RV wrapped in red vinyl and bearing the Run Forest Run campaign slogan.
On the route, a man wearing a sweat-drenched baseball hat and blue-jean overalls waved an American flag in one hand and a POW-MIA flag in the other. He appeared confused. I thought elections were in the fall. Anyone know who Dan Forest is? What does the lieutenant governor do?
Such is the life of a candidate in North Carolinas runoff election. Its lonely and hot.
There are probably a million things our kids would rather be doing in the summertime than going from parade to parade and knocking on doors, said Forest, whose four children, ages 7 to 19, have traveled often since the campaign started last year.
North Carolina is one of eight states that require runoff elections for all races. If the top vote-getter didnt receive 40 percent in the May primary, the second-place finisher can ask for a runoff. And this year a new state law delayed the election by a month to account for military ballots from overseas, pushing it deep into summer.
The runoffs will determine candidates in five statewide contests, as well as numerous congressional and legislative districts, but the turnout is not expected to hit 10 percent.
In 2010, only 4.5 percent of those registered voted in a runoff election with a Democratic U.S. Senate race and three Republican congressional primaries. In 2008, only 1.8 percent went to the polls a second time.
So far in this second primary, only 13,000 people have voted early roughly one-sixth of the turnout at this point in the May primary, which drew 2.2 million, or 34 percent, of eligible voters.
This year seems to be living up to its past history, and that is of a dismal turnout statewide, said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor. So when we say every vote counts, we literally mean it for this election.
Focus outside Raleigh
On the Republican statewide ballot, voters will pick a nominee in four races: lieutenant governor, commissioner of insurance, state superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state.
On the Democratic side, the only statewide race being contested is commissioner of labor.
All together, the posts constitute most of the Council of State, a governing body of North Carolinas top elected officials that meets regularly to make decisions on state contracts and borrowing. The current Council of State is stocked with Democrats. But Republicans hope to change the dynamic by electing the states second Republican lieutenant governor and first Republican insurance commissioner in history.
These Council of State seats are pretty important, but people dont pay attention, said John Tedesco, a Republican candidate for state superintendent.
The runoff campaign looks very different from the first round. The candidates are criss-crossing the state attending even the smallest Republican club meetings and community events. Less emphasis is placed on mailings and television commercials. And those airing ads and sending fliers are targeting only the most loyal voters.
Blitzing the airwaves doesnt necessarily help if folks arent tuned in or on vacation, Bitzer explained. If candidates arent ringing doorbells and phones targeting these party loyalists, then Id say their strategy isnt going to prevail in a few weeks.
Six of the eight Republican candidates traveled last week to Chatham County, near the border with Cary, for an adult communitys Republican club meeting. The club president, Judith McDaniel, started the event by asking the candidates to describe the responsibilities of the elected offices. The hour-long event only drew 60 people, but the candidates said it was one of the bigger forums on the campaign trail.
The majority of the statewide candidates call Raleigh home, but much of the campaign action is focused in the Charlotte area, including Union County, where Forests campaign spent the Fourth of July. Two heated runoffs in the 8th and 9th congressional districts are expected to draw the most voters to the polls.
Forests runoff rival, Tony Gurley, spent the day zigzagging the 11th Congressional District in the mountains, where another tight GOP contest will boost turnout. He attended a Hendersonville parade and a Brevard car show. His parents home in Marion, where he grew up, is acting as a home base for the campaign.
Ive spent more time in my old bedroom at my parents house in the last two months than in the past 30 years, Gurley said.
John Brooks, a Democratic candidate for labor commissioner, is hoping to piggyback on the Republican interest. He said the GOP congressional primaries will generate activity and awareness of the race among Democrats and that will motivate them to vote.
Brooks served for 16 years as commissioner but lost in the 1992 Democratic primary after problems with workplace safety inspections were exposed by a deadly fire at a Hamlet chicken plant the previous year. He faces Marlowe Foster, a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, in the primary.
Working for every vote
The campaign trail is often grueling for the candidates and their families.
Forest and his crew huddled in the RV after the Waxhaw parade, jockeying for position to catch the breeze from the air conditioner.
Each swallowed a quick Gatorade or water before disembarking for the next July 4 parade a couple hours later in Indian Trail, followed by another parade in nearby Unionville.
Welcome to our life, said Haley, Forests 16-year-old daughter. Its not a normal day if we dont travel at least seven hours on the road.