Politics & Government

NC elections are Tuesday. On the coast, Republicans are fighting about offshore drilling.

In this May 14, 2015 file photo, the oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Elliott Bay in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
In this May 14, 2015 file photo, the oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer is towed toward a dock in Elliott Bay in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File) AP

Republicans control nearly every seat in the state legislature representing coastal North Carolina. But Democrats think they might be able to flip six of those seats this year in their attempt to retake power.

Complicating the matter for coastal conservatives is that in only one of those six districts is the incumbent guaranteed to be on the ballot this November. In every other district, the Republican incumbent either is not seeking re-election or has a primary challenge.

Early voting in the state's primary elections ends Saturday. Election Day is Tuesday.

On the coast, many of these GOP primary challengers are leaders in local government. Their grievances run the gamut from offshore drilling to a 2017 law that overturned a state ban on plastic bags in the Outer Banks.

In some GOP primaries along the coast, the candidates' stances on drilling are helping differentiate them to voters.

Opposition to offshore drilling is typically associated more with Democrats than Republicans — President Donald Trump reversed the Obama-era ban on offshore drilling soon after taking office — but there is broad opposition in coastal communities, where people tend to put aside politics to voice their concerns over the possibility of environmental disasters or the loss of tourism dollars that keep coastal economies afloat.

"In general I think we've seen opposition all along the coast, through resolutions that have been passed and presentations made by the commissioners," said Michael Flynn of the N.C. Coastal Federation.

He said that while the group doesn't endorse any particular candidates, it does oppose offshore drilling and encourages voters to learn about candidates' stance on that and other issues crucial to the coastal environment.

At least 33 different city and county governments in North Carolina have signed official resolutions opposing offshore drilling. And various chambers of commerce and tourism boards in the Outer Banks, New Hanover County, Carteret County, Dare County and Wrightsville Beach have also come out against drilling.

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After rolling back restrictions on where companies can mine for oil and gas on the ocean floor, the Trump administration has also been rolling back safety rules for the drilling industry that were passed in the aftermath of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in 2010.

Supporters of offshore drilling say it will create jobs and help the United States become less dependent on foreign countries for fossil fuels.

Although Gov. Roy Cooper strongly opposes offshore drilling, as do the governors of nearly every Atlantic Coast state, North Carolina's two U.S. senators are in favor of it.

"Offshore leasing benefits the economies of all the states, helps reduce the federal deficit, provides affordable energy to families and businesses, and strengthens our national security," Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis wrote in a letter last year.

But despite Trump's push for more drilling, any actual offshore oil rigs apart from the Gulf of Mexico are still years away from coming to fruition. Companies have to lease the drilling rights from the federal government, which is a lengthy process. The government plans to begin selling leases for some Alaskan coastal drilling rights starting in 2019, but there does not yet appear to be a similar time frame for Atlantic Coast drilling.

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Coastal primaries

In House District 1 in northeastern North Carolina, Republican Rep. Bob Steinburg chose not to run again so that he could instead run for the area's state Senate seat.

That Senate seat was previously held by a different Republican, Sen. Bill Cook, who is retiring. And although Steinburg is a current legislator, several of the most prominent legislative leaders in his party are actively supporting Steinburg's challenger in the Republican primary, real estate agent Clark Twiddy.

Although offshore drilling hasn't been a prominent issue in that primary, other energy development issues have. Steinburg has said he thinks support for Twiddy by one GOP leader, Republican Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, stems from Steinburg's support for wind energy development; Brown had proposed a moratorium on such development. There are several wind projects in the district.

Steinburg, however, has maintained that he has better conservative credentials than Twiddy.

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Democrats on the ballot are Cole Phelps, a local county commissioner, and local businessman Steve James.

In the House district that Steinburg vacated to run for the Senate, there's also a Republican primary to replace him.

The candidates are Ed Goodwin, a former county commissioner, and Candice Hunter, a former TV anchor who now has a marketing business. Whoever wins that fight will face a Democratic candidate in Ron Wesson, a local county commissioner who is not facing a primary opponent and thus will be able to focus all his spending on the general election.

Farther south along the coast, several Republican incumbents are facing primaries as well.

Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern, one of the state's most far-right legislators, is being challenged by Marine Corps veteran Eric Queen, who says he will be less confrontational. It's a long shot for Democrats to win the district represented by Speciale.

And in Wilmington, Rep. Ted Davis is being challenged by local businessman Hunter Ford.

Ford is a strong supporter of offshore drilling, while Davis in February told The News & Observer he met with Trump administration officials and about a dozen fellow North Carolina Republican legislators, and was the only one to mention coastal residents' concerns over drilling.

Davis' seat appears on a list of races targeted by the liberal group Real Facts NC as an opportunity for Democrats to flip. Whoever wins the GOP primary will face Democratic challenger Marcia Morgan, a retired Army colonel. David Perry, a Libertarian, is also running.

Another seat Democrats have their eyes on is the one in the Outer Banks held by Republican Rep. Beverly Boswell, who in her first term in the legislature has drawn a significant amount of controversy. Her Republican primary challenger is Army veteran and businessman Bobby Hanig, who is also the chairman of the Currituck County commissioners.

Whoever wins that GOP primary will face Democratic challenger Tess Judge.

Although Boswell was a Dare County commissioner until winning her 2016 legislative race, her fellow commissioners have since passed at least three resolutions opposing bills she sponsored. Those resolutions all passed unanimously, even though six of the seven county commissioners are Republicans, too.

Dare County also has passed multiple resolutions against offshore drilling, and Hanig is betting that GOP primary voters in the state's far northeastern corner will share his anti-drilling sentiments. One Hanig ad attacks Boswell by saying she "supports oil rigs off the beaches."

Boswell has attacked Hanig as liberal. Mailers picture Hanig with Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi.

The chairman of the Dare County commissioners is Robert Woodard, a Republican. In February he traveled to Raleigh to attend a public hearing on drilling where he stood up alongside Democratic politicians and coastal business owners to speak out against drilling to hundreds of assembled protesters.

"We have nothing to gain and everything to lose," Woodard said at the time. "Why in the world would we want to destroy the pristine blue waters off our coast?"

Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran