The steady stream of campaign ads and candidate events is about to become a deluge.
Campaigns for president, governor and U.S. Senate will likely heat up after Labor Day as the candidates have just two months left to win over the remaining undecided voters.
This week’s political schedule is a perfect example of North Carolina’s presidential battleground status: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, former President Bill Clinton and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine all will campaign here Tuesday. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be in Charlotte for a fundraiser and rally Thursday.
Statewide candidates will have to fight for a share of the spotlight, and the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate will have millions of dollars in spending from outside groups to help get above the presidential campaign noise.
Down-ballot candidates will struggle, however, to get their messages out with so much focus on the top three races. And there’s a lot of lesser-known contests – voters in Wake County will have 39 different elected positions on their ballots as well as a bond referendum.
Here’s what to watch for in the next nine weeks:
Will the candidates debate? Only one TV debate has been scheduled in the two top statewide races: Gov. Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper will face off Oct. 11 on 30 TV stations and statewide radio. Chuck Todd of NBC moderates.
McCrory’s campaign says it would like to have up to eight debates, but no others have been made official yet.
And in the Senate race, Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democrat Deborah Ross have been in negotiations for months to have an N.C. Association of Broadcasters debate similar to what McCrory and Cooper are doing. No date or agreement had been reached as of last week. Ross has called for four debates.
Unless more debates are added, 2016 could be an unusually bad year for voters who like to compare candidates side-by-side. The 2014 U.S. Senate race featured three debates.
How will the presidential contest affect North Carolina races? Republicans are worried that Trump’s unpopularity could hurt GOP candidates at the state level, particularly if conservative voters opt to stay home from the polls.
So far though, McCrory, Burr and other Republican state candidates haven’t distanced themselves from Trump, endorsing the controversial billionaire and occasionally appearing at his rallies. Burr, however, has criticized a few of Trump’s most incendiary comments, such as his criticism of the parents of a Muslim solider killed in combat.
What will the early voting schedule look like? A federal court ruling that overturned North Carolina’s voter ID law also mandated changes in the schedule for early voting, adding more days when polls will be open.
But some county election officials split along party lines as they tried to set the number of hours and polling locations. Counties are no longer required to offer the same number of hours as they did in the 2012 election. The state Republican Party urged its appointees on county elections boards to limit early voting with fewer hours and no Sunday voting opportunities.
This week, the State Board of Elections is expected to meet this week to vote on local election plans that weren’t approved unanimously. The board is seeking public comment on the topic until 5 p.m. Monday at its website, ncsbe.gov.
What are the close and important races that will get overshadowed? Keep an eye on the N.C. Supreme Court race, which could alter the partisan makeup of the court that often gets a chance to overturn or uphold controversial state laws.
It’s technically a nonpartisan race, but Republicans have lined up behind incumbent Justice Bob Edmunds, while Democrats are backing Wake County Superior Court Judge Mike Morgan. Ads haven’t started much in that race, but past Supreme Court races have drawn spending from outside groups.
Close races are also expected for two key positions in the Council of State — attorney general and state treasurer — because the candidates in those contests don’t have the advantage of incumbency.
What else is on the ballot this year? Expect to fill out a long ballot – which probably won’t help shorten lines at the polls – because so many elected offices are up for grabs.
North Carolina has eliminated straight-ticket voting, which allowed voters to simply select their preferred political party and automatically vote for most candidates within that party.
In addition to the Council of State and legislative races, voters will send several judges to the N.C. Court of Appeals and lower courts. Many counties, including Wake, will select school board members, registers of deeds and county commissioners.
And don’t forget the soil and water conservation district supervisor – the last race on the Wake County ballot, next to a Wake referendum on a half-cent sales tax to fund transit projects.
Sample ballots are online at vt.ncsbe.gov/voter_search_public/ for those who want a head start on researching candidates.
Important election dates
Sept. 9: Absentee voting by mail begins (forms available at ncsbe.gov)
Oct. 14: Voter registration deadline. After this date, early voting is the only way to get on voter rolls
Oct. 20: Early voting starts
Nov. 1: Last day to request an absentee ballot by mail
Nov. 5: Last day of early voting
Nov. 8: Election Day