Lawmakers in the state House on Wednesday put on hold a bill that would have set up two primaries this spring – one on March 15 for presidential candidates and a second, in May, for other statewide offices.
Now, legislators are considering combining the primaries into the March date as a cost-saving measure.
The action Wednesday was unexpected, as lawmakers had seemed set on the separate primaries.
The Senate had already voted to set a March 15 presidential race and it was seen as an important factor in keeping North Carolina in the national mix as candidates visit states and seek attention from voters.
But the House lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday not to go along with the Senate plan, and began laying groundwork for all primaries in March.
Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, said that lawmakers will look at saving an estimated $4 million to $6 million by holding all primary elections in March as well.
He added that there is a technical issue in the Senate bill language, discovered recently, regarding early voting days.
Asked whether moving all the primaries to the same day would limit campaign ad air time for the lower-level races, Lewis said that was something that has been a concern from the beginning and was a reason for the separate primaries.
“We want to take one more look at the balancing act between the cost to hold two separate primaries and the accessibility, if you will, for the lower ballot races to be heard,” Lewis said.
North Carolinians should see a frenzy of ads and campaign visits, regardless of the primary dates.
“My guess is that we are going to be in a 24-hour, 365-day campaign starting very soon here,” Lewis said. “The amount of money that will be spent in the state for the presidential campaigns, the U.S. Senate campaigns, the gubernatorial, Council of State and legislature, I’m certain eclipse anything we have ever seen before. I fully expect you will see the ads no matter when the primary is.”
All those seeking the presidency are expected to flock to the state between now and March 15.
Other March 15 state primaries are Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Missouri.
For now, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is in the race, and also in are Florida’s former Gov. Jeb Bush and current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
The primary is also a “winner takes all” format, meaning the candidate that wins North Carolina’s primary will take all the state’s delegate votes for their party to the national convention. North Carolina will send 72 delegates to the Republican National Convention and 122 delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
For the Republicans, who have an unusually crowded field of potentials, North Carolina is particularly attractive because it sends the sixth-largest delegation to the national convention. The state has already seen a number of visits from Republicans such as Bush, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, businessman Donald Trump, Gov. Scott Walker and Dr. Ben Carson.
In the past, North Carolina had a proportional primary. For example, if a candidate won 30 percent of the primary votes, he would get 30 percent of the delegates.
Former N.C. Republican Party chairman Claude Pope said that in some ways proportionality works against a state in terms of getting more campaign attention.
“If they are willing to settle for a percentage, they might not invest as much in that state to get a win. Proportionality is fine, but it waters down your clout as a state at the national convention,” Pope said.
Sen. Andrew Brock, a Mocksville Republican who largely introduced and guided the bill through the Senate, said the March primary date is acceptable to both parties. He said he didn’t care much either way about when the other races hold primaries so long as the presidential primary is in March.
North Carolina will continue to hold an open primary, which means that a voter does not need to register with a party to vote in that party’s primary. If you show up on March 15 and are already registered with a party, you will receive that party’s ballot. An unaffiliated voter can chose a party ballot on the primary day.
The new procedures and date are included in House Bill 373, which will now be taken up by a House-Senate conference committee.