Surprise Union County candidate shakes up the 9th District Republican primary

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A surprise candidate from Union County jumped into North Carolina’s special 9th District Republican primary Monday, shaking up a race that was already shaken up just hours earlier.

Former state Sen. Fern Shubert of Marshville, a maverick one-time gubernatorial candidate, joined Union County commissioner Stony Rushing of Wingate as the first Republicans in the race.

Earlier in the day, another Union Republican, former Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw, ended weeks of speculation with the announcement that he won’t run. State Rep. Dean Arp of Monroe has said he’s unlikely to run.

Union is most heavily Republican county in the district that runs from Charlotte past Fayetteville. Until Shubert’s entry, Rushing appeared to be the only Union County GOP candidate in a field that’s expected to include two prominent Mecklenburg Republicans.

Former Mecklenburg commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who has announced, and state Sen. Dan Bishop, who is widely expected to, could compete for the votes in the county with the district’s second-largest Republican electorate.

Libertarian Jeff Scott of Charlotte also filed Monday. As recently as Saturday, one GOP party official said up to 15 Republicans could enter the race before filing ends Friday.

Tucker and Raleigh Republican David Blackwelder both cited the crowded field and the need for the party to come together without a bruising primary and a possible runoff as reasons for not running. A candidate needs 30 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

Blackwelder, a former Wake County commissioner candidate from Raleigh, tweeted over the weekend that he won’t run to “hopefully prevent a runoff.”

Tucker echoed his sentiments.

“I cannot see how an already crowded primary field would help the Republican Party,” Tucker told the Observer. “I would love to run against no-stand Dan McCready and the Democrats.”

The GOP primary winner is expected to face McCready, who ran in the 2018 race that was marred by allegations of election fraud. Republicans have criticized what they call McCready’s reluctance to stake out positions. McCready has rejected the suggestion. In the 2018 race, he staked out a centrist, “country over party” platform in his attempt to flip a district that’s been in Republican hands for more than five decades.

A ‘bulldog’

Rushing is a gun range owner and Union County commissioner endorsed by Mark Harris, the Republican who ran against McCready in 2018.

Shubert is a former state legislator who built a reputation as a maverick who wasn’t shy about going after opponents. One GOP colleague at the time called her a “bulldog.” She ran for governor in 2004, finishing fifth in the primary among six Republicans. Though out of elected office ever since, she’s confident of her chances.

“I have a huge head start on name recognition and I’m a known quality,” she said. “You can spend $1 million telling people what you’re going to do. But people can see what I’ve done.”

Also Monday, former Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson Monday cited political geography in explaining his decision not to enter the race. The balance of voters in the district — weighted toward denser Union and Mecklenburg counties in the west — convinced him to decline to run.

“A candidate from the eastern part of the district would have very little chance of actually winning the primary when going against other candidates with decent name recognition from the west,” he wrote on Facebook.

Newcomers Stevie Rivenbark of Fayetteville and Nadia Caro Robinson of Charlotte have announced they plan to run.

Though he declined to make an endorsement, Tucker said he’s inclined to support a Mecklenburg candidate.

“If I had any leaning to endorse anyone at this time, it would probably be my Senate friend, Dan Bishop,” Tucker said. “But that’s not an endorsement.”

Bishop is a conservative legislator with statewide name recognition from his role as one of the authors of House Bill 2, the controversial law that blocked municipalities from establishing local LGBTQ protections.

Bishop couldn’t be reached Monday.

‘A function of money’

Mecklenburg County Republican Larry Shaheen, a political consultant and attorney, said the primary’s compressed time frame means that candidates will be pressured to raise a large amount of money quickly. He predicted that a successful primary campaign would need at least $500,000 for the phone calls, TV ads and mailers necessary to get the candidate’s message and name out to voters.

“This is going to be a function of money. Who gets on TV first, who gets in the mailbox first, who makes the phone call first,” he said. “Anyone can be a tempest in a teapot if they don’t have the money.”

With low turnout likely in the off-year primary, the winning candidate might not have to rack up a huge number of votes to hit the required 30 percent threshold. In June 2016, just 26,506 Republicans turned out to vote in the primary election for the 9th District.

Former incumbent U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger won that contest over Harris by 134 votes. He got 9,299 votes, or just under 35 percent of ballots cast. Turnout was about 18 percent.

On Saturday, outgoing Union County GOP Chairman Dan Barry urged candidates to have a civil primary.

“I challenge you primary contestants, don’t spend a lot of time fighting each other,” he said. “We won’t have a lot of time after May 14 to heal the wounds.”

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.