In primary contests for the state House this year, observers see a referendum on the Republican establishment.
They’re studying a pair of rare challenges to key House incumbents and an effort to unseat a fellow Republican who has criticized the brass.
“The results of these primary races will be significant for the Republican Party’s future in North Carolina,” said Meredith College political science professor David McLennan.
Reps. David Lewis of Dunn, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and Nelson Dollar of Cary, the House’s top budget writer, face primary challenges March 15 for the first time since they entered office more than a decade ago.
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“Traditionally, these positions have been assets,” said UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig, noting that districts represented by power players fare well in legislation. Because of that, he said, primary challenges to House leaders are “somewhat unusual.”
The results of these primary races will be significant for the Republican Party’s future in North Carolina.
Meredith College political science professor David McLennan
The two challenges are among 26 House Republican primaries this year, 11 of which are for open seats. There are 18 Democratic primaries, nine for open seats.
Lewis in early 2015 became chairman of the House Rules Committee and the top lieutenant to Speaker Tim Moore of Kings Mountain. Lewis will face small-business owner and former Harnett County Board of Education member Chuck Levorse.
Levorse said in an interview that he’s closer to the people’s interests. He said Lewis has become “more interested in Raleigh than our home district. He spends more time there. He has wielded a lot of power there.”
Lewis disputed that. “I work very hard for the people of Harnett County,” he said. “I devote the time needed to get the job done.”
Dollar is senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and is in a heated contest with Mark Villee of Raleigh.
A past GOP district chairman, Villee has financial backing from prominent conservative donor Bob Luddy, who also has a website dedicated to ousting Dollar from politics.
The two challenges “reflect the growing schism within the Republican Party between traditional or establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans,” particularly over spending, McLennan said.
It used to be what you got by being in a party was a relative sense of political discipline, and part of that was you didn’t take on an incumbent.
Joe Stewart of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation
Lewis entered office in 2003 and Dollar in 2005 after winning primaries before the general election.
Levorse, who runs a screen printing business, had nowhere near the fundraising support Lewis listed in his latest campaign finance report, but analysts warn against discounting him.
“Somebody who’s been on a school board, even if he doesn’t have the money, he does have the name recognition and success in running campaigns that you typically don’t see in primary challengers,” Heberlig said.
Levorse served two nonconsecutive terms on the Harnett school board and was chairman from 2012 to 2014. He lost in the 2014 primary.
Levorse, in the latest campaign finance reporting period, reported raising $407, nearly all of it from his own pocket. Lewis collected nearly $154,000, with top contributors including the political action committees of Walmart, John Deere, Federal Express and the N.C. Farm Bureau.
Like Levorse, Villee showed modest resources in his latest campaign finance report. Meanwhile, Dollar’s top contributors included EMPAC, the political arm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, and various health care PACs.
But Luddy’s pledge to help Villee might surface in the next round of reports, which are due Monday. Luddy has given $40,000 to his own web effort, stopnelsondollar.com, which criticizes Dollar’s budget writing, among other things.
Dollar said the Villee campaign seems more based on “attacks and smears” than issues.
“I feel very good about the race. We’re substantially ahead, and we’re talking about the issues,” said Dollar, whose campaign has run a response ad calling Villee “desperate.”
Efforts to reach Villee for comment were not successful.
An upset for Lewis or Dollar could be a sign “that the party is moving even further to the right and may signal trouble for Tim Moore’s future as the House’s leader,” McLennan said.
While Moore didn’t draw an election opponent this year, he has weathered harsh words from some members of the House Republican caucus. They include Rep. Justin Burr, a four-term Albemarle Republican, who himself has drawn a primary challenger. The N.C. Chamber has paid for campaign mailers backing Burr’s opponent, Lane Burris.
“It just proves what folks like me are up against,” Burr told the Insider, a state government news service owned by The News & Observer. “If you stand up to the good ol’ boys in Raleigh, then you get targeted.”
The Chamber says Burris simply ranked higher than Burr in a formula that measured the candidates’ backgrounds and business support.
Burr’s last round of funding reports showed support from others in the Republican caucus who have criticized the House leadership. They included Reps. Mike Hager of Rutherford County, the majority leader, and Julia Howard of Davie County.
Burris raised about $20,000 in the last reporting period, roughly the same as Burr.
Burris’ total included donors who back Moore, including Charlotte businessman Jay Faison, who made headlines in 2015 when he pledged $175 million to reverse conservatives’ skepticism on climate change. Faison gave Burris $5,100, the maximum an individual can give a candidate. He recently gave the same to Moore.
The fissures within the House Republican caucus and the primary challenges to its leaders might be “the beginning of the death spiral of political parties,” said Joe Stewart of the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan group that tracks candidates. “It used to be what you got by being in a party was a relative sense of political discipline, and part of that was you didn’t take on an incumbent.”
For people who would run against incumbents in their own party, “there were consequences…. Absent that kind of discipline,” Stewart quipped, “what’s the real meaningfulness of being in a political party in the first place?”
Benjamin Brown of the NC Insider
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Key House primaries
▪ Republicans: Ashley Woolard, Beverly Boswell.
Democrats: Warren Judge, Judy Justice.
This is the seat Rep. Paul Tine of Dare County — the House’s only unaffiliated member after shifting from his Democratic registration — is leaving, and the Republicans hope to turn it red. The GOP slate includes Woolard, who lost in the 2014 primaries, and a Republican Dare County commissioner, Boswell. Fellow county commissioner Judge is on the Democratic ballot facing Justice, a past state Senate candidate known at the time as Judy Krahenbuhl. Former House Democrat Arthur Williams will appear on the ballot as a Republican, but he dropped out of the race in January.
▪ Republicans: Holly Grange, Tammy Covil
This southeastern primary, for the seat being vacated by Republican Rick Catlin of Wilmington, has been a battle. Covil, a New Hanover County Board of Education member, has tried to link Grange, a State Ports Authority Board member, with Hillary Clinton and the 2012 Benghazi consulate attacks. Covil even bought the website www.hollygrange.com to make that connection. Grange has called the effort a falsehood and diversion from pressing issues. No Democrats filed for the seat.
▪ Democrats: Jean Farmer-Butterfield, Kandie Smith
Farmer-Butterfield of Wilson, in her seventh House term, faces a name-recognition candidate. Smith is a Greenville City Council member in her fourth term. While it hasn’t received much statewide media attention, this may be a “very hotly contested primary,” according to Joe Stewart of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, which tracks candidates. Farmer-Butterfield’s last primary was in 2014, when she beat Mark Bibbs by a wide margin. No Republicans filed this year.
▪ Democrats: Michael Wray, Franklin Williams
Wray of Gaston is the incumbent, facing off with a past primary opponent, Williams of Weldon. The latter, a pastor, garnered 42 percent of the primary vote in 2014 but has increased his name recognition in the district and raised more funds than Wray in the latest reporting period. Wray is in his sixth term. This strongly Democratic district, which includes Halifax and Northampton counties, drew no Republican candidates.
▪ Republicans: Nelson Dollar, Mark Villee
▪ Democrats: Jennifer Ferrell, Woodie Cleary
Eyes are on the Republicans, with one of the most prominent legislators in North Carolina — Dollar, a Cary resident in his sixth House term — defending against attacks from one conservative financier who believes the incumbent isn’t as far to the right as he should be. That financier, Bob Luddy, has launched stopnelsondollar.com and has pledged support for Dollar’s opponent, Mark Villee, whose ads describe himself as “change for a Dollar.”
▪ Republicans: Justin Burr, Lane Burris
The incumbent Burr, in his fourth term, gained new attention last year when he criticized the leadership of House Speaker Tim Moore. More recently, the N.C. Chamber paid for mailers supporting Burr’s opponent, Burris. It’s one of the primaries characterized as faction Republicans taking on establishment Republicans, with competitive fundraising momentum. The winner will face Democrat Carson Roger Snyder in November.
▪ Republicans: Larry Pittman, Michael Fischer
Pittman, the incumbent and a pastor from Concord, lacks the fundraising pace of his opponent, Fischer, an attorney who said upon his filing that he didn’t think his district had adequate representation. Pittman, viewed as one of the House’s most conservative members, isn’t always aligned with his party, having voted against the majority more often than any other member but one in 2015. The primary winner will take on Democrat Earle Schecter, whom Pittman beat easily in 2014.