CARY — With the eyes of the nation looking to North Carolina, the polls in Tuesdays primary election opened at 6:30 a.m. and a steady trickle of voters began casting ballots in the all-important Republican race for U.S. Senate.
At mid-afternoon, state elections officials were monitoring reports of possible delays that could require voting hours be extended this evening. Also, two people were critically injured when struck by a van in a Cabarrus County polling place.
The Republican Senate contest pits three factions of the states Republican party against each other and it is being seen in political circles as a proxy for the national party.
The leading candidates all have their strengths: Thom Tillis, who is backed by establishment Washington, Greg Brannon, a Rand Paul-endorsed libertarian conservative who aligns with the tea party, and Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor who found support in the evangelical community. The polls close at 7:30 p.m.
What kind of Republican Party voters want was a factor in the voting for some. We need some change in North Carolina, said Ashley Van Wormer, a 44-year-old sales trainer from Cary, who said she voted for Tillis. We need conservative values but not too far conservative. We need to elect somebody that can win.
The overriding question in the race is whether Tillis, who leads in polling and fundraising, can win outright with more than 40 percent of the vote, or whether Brannon and Harris can force him into a July 15 runoff. Two more congressional races across the state the Democratic primary in the 12th Congressional District and the Republican primary in the 6th Congressional District are also potential contenders for campaign overtime.
Three other congressional races from Raleigh eastward also are expected to draw a solid turnout.
• In the 2nd Congressional District, Democrats Clay Aiken, the former American Idol runner-up, and Keith Crisco, a former state commerce secretary, are in a close battle that could go either way.
• In the 3rd Congressional District, 10-term Republican incumbent Walter Jones faces a stiff challenge from Taylor Griffin, who has received more than $1 million in help from Republicans in Washington who are frustrated with Jones maverick streak.
• And in the 7th Congressional District, Republican David Rouzer and Woody White are squaring off in another nationally watched race for a seat held by outgoing Democrat Mike McIntyre.
The turnout for a mid-term primary election may exceed the 2010 election, but no major lines are anticipated at the polls.
Four years ago, 14 percent of voters cast ballots. So far this election, early voting grew 1 percent compared to 2010.
State elections officials are looking into reports that access to a polling place in Duplin County has been hampered by a blocked road. At mid-afternoon, officials were waiting to hear back from the state Department of Transportation about what was going on, spokesman Josh Lawson said.
Under the new elections law, the state board rather than county boards has the authority to extend voting times. Lawson said the state has informed county board several times to let the state know of any problems.
With 2,700-plus polling places in the state, we rely on the counties to quickly get us informed about situations going on so they can be addressed, Lawson said.
Three people were hit by a van Tuesday morning in a polling place parking lot in Concord, Lawson reported. Two of them are in critical condition.
The accident happened at Center United Methodist Church, which is a polling location in Cabarrus County.
Our thoughts are with the injured and all those affected by this tragedy, state Elections Director Kim Westbrook Strach said in a news release the board issued.
There were no reports of problems in Wake County, where a spot check of precincts showed a slow and steady trickle of voters. By noon, there were just over 125 voters at the Hilburn Drive Academy in northwest Raleigh.
The polling place at Glen Eden Pilot Park in West Raleigh was closing in on 350 voters a short time later. That location drew the relatives of several candidates on the ballot, making last-minute pitches for their loved-ones support.
Democratic Wake district attorney candidates Boz Zellinger and Lorrin Freeman had parents there, and Republican Wake clerk of court candidate Joe Teagues wife was on hand.
Voters there and at Martin Middle School, also in West Raleigh, uniformly said they werent motivated by a single candidate; rather, they always vote.
I definitely dont have a specific candidate, said Ben Worley, 38. I always try to vote.
At the top of the ticket, its the Senate race drawing the most voters.
Just after 9 a.m., Brannon and his family voted at Penny Road Elementary School in Cary. I feel very confident because I know grassroots wins campaigns, he told reporters outside the polling location.
I feel very comfortable that the grassroots can speak out and the people of North Carolina are looking for a Lee and a Paul and a Cruz and were that campaign, he said, referencing Republican U.S. Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, all of whom he hopes to emulate.
The obstetrician said he was tired after working through the night delivering two babies. The last 18 hours are the reason Im here, he said. The idea of our future and not passing on a true representative public is unacceptable. Thats why we are here doing this.
The other candidates on the primary ballot are likewise working for last-minute votes across the state. Tillis and Harris will each hold election night parties in Charlotte; Brannon will gather with his supporters in Raleigh. The winner will face U.S. Sen. Democrat Kay Hagan, who is easily expected to defeat her primary challengers.
Regardless of who emerges, Cary contractor Jon Rufty is looking for a different campaign for November. Like all national politics, its just way too polarized, the 59-year-old Independent said. Its frustrating that the statesmanship is no longer alive on the national level. And I think both sides fall into that category.
Rufty voted in the Republican primary but wouldnt identify his favorite. For November, he said his vote is up for grabs. I am looking for, especially at the national level, the parties to work together for whats best for the country.