Let the voting begin.
The North Carolina primary election is getting national attention as a bellwether for the forces at battle inside the Republican Party. But the ballot may offer clues to many big questions. Take a look at 5 keys to watch:
1. What is the strength of the tea party in North Carolina? Even though it's an imperfect proxy, the GOP primary for U.S. Senate is showcasing the fractured Republican tent in North Carolina – the establishment, tea party and evangelical community – and the nation.
But as the tea party spirit fades elsewhere in the nation, can it make a stand in North Carolina? All the major candidates -- Thom Tillis, Greg Brannon and Mark Harris -- are getting some tea party support. But Brannon is backed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is behind Brannon.
What will the election tell us about the tea party's potency in North Carolina, especially ahead of 2016? A win for the tea party is a runoff, at the least.
2. What will the primary cost GOP front-runner Thom Tillis? If the GOP Senate race goes into overtime, it will hurt the Republican Party's chances in the fall. The time and money spent in the intra-party battle only means time away from preparing for Democrat Kay Hagan.
But on a larger level, did the primary push Tillis too far to the right, or put him in too many awkward positions that he's wounded for November? Anything short of an outright win would be a blow to the Tillis campaign and the Washington establishment that has pulled out all the stops for him in recent days.
3. Can Congressman Walter Jones be beat? For two decades, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones has held the 3rd District. His father served 26 years before him. But this year, the Republican faces one of his greatest challenges – surely a well-funded one – in Taylor Griffin.
Jones barely hit the campaign trail, to hear local politicos tell it, while Griffin tried to refamiliarize himself with the district after moving back from Washington. Can the absent candidate win against the Washington GOP establishment's hand-picked challenger?
4. Does money rule the day? This is a loaded political question that can apply to many races – but we'll stamp it on the N.C. Supreme Court race this time. In a race where the candidates remain unknown to more than three out of four voters, can million dollars in outside spending – much of it on plus in TV ads blasting one candidate, Democrat Robin Hudson – shift the race? Republicans sure think so.
The top two candidates move on to November. And don't expect the money spigot to stop if Hudson wins. But if she manages to survive for another day, it puts the campaign against her at a crossroads: More ads or new tactics? If past is prologue, expect the negative campaigning to continue.
5. Will a new political family begin to rise? The bloodbath known as the 6th Congressional District GOP primary includes a familiar name: Phil Berger Jr. His father, Phil Berger, is the Senate President Pro Tem and one of the top Republican names anytime a big ticket election comes around.
If Berger Jr. survives the attacks on his record as Rockingham district attorney, particularly if he wins without a runoff, he is well on his way to Washington. The district leans GOP, but he will have to face a tougher-than-average Democrat in Laura Fjeld. Two ambitious Bergers in office would make good political theater in the years to come.
***Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. But the most important ballot Tuesday is this one -- the Dome Election Contest. We jest, but vote here for a chance to test your political acumen and win N&O prizes, including the coveted comics umbrella and more. ***
TODAY IN POLITICS: Gov. Pat McCrory and the Council of State will meet at 9 a.m. at the Department of Administration building.
THE SCENE SETTERS ---
THE FINAL PUSH WITH NATIONAL IMPLICATIONS: National politics took stage Monday in North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, a race that offers the year’s first real test of clout between the GOP establishment and grassroots insurgents.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a tea party favorite and possible GOP presidential candidate, headlined a Charlotte rally for Republican Greg Brannon. And former presidential nominee Mitt Romney became the latest establishment figure to back Brannon’s rival, Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
“This is the first high-profile Senate primary pitting the tea party against the establishment,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. Read more here.
MORE: The struggle for control of the Republican Party is getting an early voter test in North Carolina. Read more here.
FIRST TEST FOR NEW VOTING LAW: During Tuesday's primary elections for one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country, voter advocacy groups will be trying to gauge the effects of a new state law that requires photo IDS at the polls, reduces the number of early-voting days, and eliminates same-day registration. Read more here.
FRONT-PAGE HEADLINES: Hickory Daily Record: Now, it’s up to the voters. Henderson Daily Dispatch: Time to head to the polls. Hendersonville Times News: N.C. voters signal GOP future. Charlotte Observer: GOP Senate primary is a test for the party.
#TBT(uesday) From a very different Senate campaign three decades ago -- via the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 20, 1984: Carolina Campaign Offers a Showdown Old South vs. New --- Jesse Helms, on Right, Faces Moderate Gov. Jim Hunt In Race With High Stakes
GREENVILLE, N.C. -- The evening offered barbecued chicken, corn sticks, iced tea and Jesse Helms. Catfish Hunter couldn't make it, but for the North Carolina senator the evening was still a sentimental journey back to the Moose lodge where he began his first Senate campaign on a rainy night 12 years ago.
"I see many faces that were there that night," he told the crowd of 500, which paid $5 a plate to sit 20 abreast at the long tables filling the hall. "This is where it all started, so you're kind of responsible. When the governor talks about embarrassment to North Carolina, he's talking about you."
Jesse and Jim, Helms vs. Hunt, the senator against the governor, the Old South against the New. (Thanks to NYT’s Jonathan Martin for sending article along.)
RAND PAUL STUMPS FOR BRANNON: A great lead from Politico -- Sen. Rand Paul has been trying to make nice with the GOP establishment for most of the year. But on the eve of a crucial GOP primary here, he fired up a crowd in support of libertarian favorite Greg Brannon, whom he hailed as “the dragon slayer” America needs to destroy the “Leviathan.” Read more here.
IS THE SENATE RACE A DONE DEAL BEFORE IT STARTS? Washington Post's "Election Lab" suggests embattled Democrat Kay Hagan, whose polling is miserable, has a 73 percent chance of winning another term. Seriously. Read more here.
KAY HAGAN LOOKS TO GENERAL ELECTION: Well before the ink dries on the primary ballots Tuesday, Democrat Kay Hagan is looking ahead to November. And particularly a matchup with Thom Tillis. Her campaign is prepared to issue a memo in the morning.
Here's how it starts: With the North Carolina GOP Senate primary drawing to a close, it appears State House Speaker Thom Tillis’ special interest allies are dragging him across the finish line in Tuesday night’s primary. Tillis, already the DC insider, is touting himself as a future NRSC chair, which is a prime example of the transparent abandonment of North Carolina that makes him unelectable in November.
"Over the next 6 months, Tillis will be forced to defend his divisive and offensive remarks, his abysmal, anti-middle class record in Raleigh, his newest slew of fringe positions, and his heavy load of ethical baggage."
MARK HARRIS ON SCOTUS RULING: “America was founded by individuals who sought freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Our Constitution was written to protect religious liberty, for our founders knew that such liberty is the foundation of a free society,” Senate candidate Mark Harris said in a statement.
BIG HEADLINE -- SEN. BILL RABON INVOLVED IN HIT-AND-RUN CRASH: From WWAY -- Witnesses say a state senator was behind the wheel of a vehicle involved in a hit-and-run accident in downtown Wilmington last night.
The crew of a movie shooting on Princess Street says they saw Sen. Bill Rabon (R-8th District) drive off after hitting a parked car in a parking lot at 2nd and Princess, but the senator says he had no idea. ...
The witness told officers the driver was Sen. Rabon. He says Rabon told him he would make it right before leaving. ...
Rabon, a self-proclaimed bad driver, says he thinks he had a few drinks with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Rep. Susi Hamilton (D-18th District) after Sunday afternoon's film rally, but he says he was not impaired when he got in his car to drive home.
DEMOCRATS JUMP ON IT: “We are happy no one was injured in this reckless and regrettable incident,” said Randy Voller, N.C. Democratic Party chairman said in a statement. “We hope this is not another case of an elected official thinking he plays by a different set of rules than the rest of the citizens. Senator Rabon should come forward, acknowledge his actions and right this wrong. In November, his constituents will have an opportunity to hold him accountable for his actions and his voting record.”
SCOTUS: A narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings on Monday, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse. Read more here.
McCRORY TEACHER PAY PLAN COMING THIS WEEK: Gov. Pat McCrory previewed a plan for improving teacher pay to several North Carolina superintendents Monday and will unveil it to the public this week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said.
(The governor’s office, like the House, was exploring 2 percent across the board pay hikes earlier this year, though recent budget shortfall projections may make that more difficult.)
THE GOP SENATE MINDSET ON TEACHER PAY? “It’s embarrassing,” state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said of the state’s low national ranking. He added that there is “a need and a will to increase teacher pay,” though the amount remains unclear. ...
But Tarte said he doesn’t support across-the-board raises. He called for a multitier pay system that would put the state’s best teachers well above the national average, withhold raises from lower performers and push the bottom 2 percent of teachers to leave the profession. Read more here.
PROBLEMS REMAIN AT DMV: From Road Worrier columnist Bruce Siceloff -- When he campaigned for office, and again after he was elected, Gov. Pat McCrory promised to “fix DMV.”
Fix what, exactly? Well, there really was no need to spell it out. Just as they knew what those unloved initials stood for, many North Carolinians knew what they didn’t like about the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
Now, a few months into their second year on the job, McCrory and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata have made a good start at fixing DMV and how it serves drivers and car owners. Let’s hope they keep up that momentum. They still have plenty of work to do with DMV workers who meet the public in person and on the phone.
“They were not very understanding when I tried to tell them what the situation was,” Bela Horvath, 78, of Bahama, told the Road Worrier. DMV had ordered him to turn in his license tags after mistakenly concluding that his car insurer was not licensed in North Carolina. It took weeks of phone calls and letters to clear up the error. Read more here.
NCGA COMMITTEE SLAMS BREAKS ON SCHOOL BILL: A state legislative committee put on hold Monday a bill that would let North Carolina students attend any public school in the state, a proposal that critics said would cause chaos for school systems.
Members of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee voted to postpone the bill, saying more study is needed, but sent forward three other bills that would expand opportunities for families at nontraditional schools. Supporters of the open enrollment bill said it would provide families more choices, but opponents cited concerns about school districts’ abilities to fulfill the bill’s provisions. Read more here.
BARRY SAUNDERS GETS AN EARFUL ON BOOZEKETBALL: From his column -- In a recent column, your humble public serpent suggested that we could make the televised Republican senatorial debates more entertaining if we took a shot of booze each time one or the other of them used a coded buzzword or one meant to hide their actual meaning. ...
It should go without saying, but obviously I have to say it anyway: Please don’t drink each time a political candidate uses a buzzword that replaces real thought and obfuscates their real meaning. There’ll be plenty of time – and reason – to get drunk once your chosen candidate gets into office. Read more here.