Republican voters made their final picks Tuesday for the November ballot, selecting candidates for the states top posts in a runoff election marked by a near-record low statewide turnout.
In the GOP race for lieutenant governor, Dan Forest, the son of U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, held a 2-to-1 advantage against Tony Gurley, a Wake County commissioner, according to early election returns. The race received the most attention and the candidates spent nearly $1 million in the prolonged campaign for a chance to challenge Democrat Linda Coleman.
John Tedesco, a Wake County school board member who touted his tea party credentials, appeared to claim the partys nomination for state superintendent, besting Monroe special education teacher Richard Alexander by a slim margin in preliminary results.
Other GOP candidates poised to emerge: Mike Causey for insurance commissioner and Ed Goodwin in the secretary of states race. On the Democratic side, where only one statewide race remained unsettled, John Brooks led in his bid for the nomination for labor commissioner, a post he held for more than 15 years.
About 3 percent of voters were expected to cast ballots in the runoff election, just above the record low in recent years, according to state election officials. The low numbers contrast with the near-record high 34 percent turnout in the initial May primary.
With the ballot now set, the GOP is eyeing its best chance in recent memory to win longtime Democratic strongholds that constitute the 10-member Council of State, thanks in part to a strong showing so far from Pat McCrory in the governors race.
I think the Republicans are going to be stronger down the ballot, said David McLennan, a political expert at William Peace University in Raleigh. With McCrory doing well, hes going to draw the ticket along with him.
The low-budget races often are decided by a few points and voters who dont know much about the candidates. But the governing body, now split with eight Democrats and two Republicans, plays a key role in state government and meets regularly to make decisions on contracts and borrowing.
North Carolina is one of the few states to elect rather than appoint officials to such posts. And in modern history, Democrats have controlled the council. Republicans have never won four of the posts and only once held the lieutenant governors office.
I dont think Democrats can take for granted that people are going to vote Democrats in those races anymore, said pollster Tom Jensen with Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm. People were just voting a straight Democratic ticket thats over.
In 2010, Republicans surged to take control of the state legislature for the first time in a century, with their new power helping to fuel a fundraising advantage that will give the party a boost this election.
Democrats are cognizant of this new reality. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton leads the partys ticket in the governors race. Early polls give McCrory an advantage but the race remains close. Likewise, Democratic incumbents on the Council of State, such as Auditor Beth Wood and Treasurer Janet Cowell, are locked in tight races against relatively unknown Republican challengers.
Party operatives say Dalton needs to keep the race close to help his down-ballot Democrats. I think its going to be extremely competitive, said Brad Crone, a strategist for Colemans campaign. If McCrory builds a big lead ... then it could be problematic for the Democrats.
Thomas Mills, a consultant for Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, one of the best known Council of State officials, likewise remains cautious about the 2012 election.
Nobody can take anything for granted in North Carolina anymore, he said. We are a swing state and every seat is going to be hard fought for; that doesnt matter if youre at the top of the ticket or down ballot.