Rob Christensen

For NC's primary voters, there was no such thing as too far left or too far right

North Carolina’s primary on Tuesday reflected two powerful national trends that are coursing through the body politic — the continued political polarization in the age of Trump and the rise of the #MeToo movement.

If you were a Republican candidate running in the primary, you couldn’t be too conservative or too pro-Trump. If you were a Democrat, you couldn’t be too liberal or too pro-women.

Both sides are ideologically digging in. And in a low-turnout election — an estimated 14.27 percent of the registered voters cast their ballots statewide — voters tend to be disproportionally party loyalists.

The biggest upset of the day was the defeat of 9th District U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, a rock-ribbed conservative with a long history of pushing for tax cuts, opposing abortions and gay marriage, and opposing Obamacare.

copy Pittenger (DC)
Rep. Robert Pittenger Jenna Eason

But Pittenger, who was serving his third term, was seen by some as too close to the House leadership. He was endorsed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser. Vice President Mike Pence shared a stage with him in Charlotte.

Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who is the former president of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, campaigned to Pittenger’s right, saying he was insufficiently conservative, not supportive enough of Trump, voted with the House leadership to raise the debt ceiling and was part of the Washington “swamp.”

Pittenger is the second North Carolina Republican congressman to be defeated in a GOP primary in as many elections. Rep. Renee Ellmers lost to Rep. George Holding in 2016 when both ran in the 2nd District as a result of redistricting.

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Ellmers lost, in part, because she was also seen as too close to the House leadership in Washington, and because she took several positions that offended social conservatives.

The Trump populist anti-establishment strain is still alive and well in Tar Heel politics.

GOP voters also seemed to be doubling down on social conservatism. Harris was a leader of the successful effort to pass Amendment One in 2012 declaring that a marriage is between a man and a woman — a constitutional provision later negated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

GOP state Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte won re-nomination with a crushing 71 percent of the vote. His well-financed challenger made an issue of his sponsorship of House Bill 2, the measure that required transgender people in schools and other government buildings to use the bathroom matching their birth certificate. HB2 was later partially repealed after it resulted in a national backlash.

Republican primary voters also rewarded three GOP incumbents with a penchant for making outrageous statements that make even their fellow conservatives cringe.

They are Reps. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County, Michael Speciale of Craven County, and George Cleveland of Onslow County. Among other things, the three co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that would remove the bar preventing North Carolina from seceding from the union.

One Republican who survived another challenge from his right was 3rd District U.S. Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville. But the 12-term congressman has a long history of being a maverick disliked by the House leadership, and it was difficult task to try to portray him as part of the swamp.

Democrats have their own factionalism, which tended to back the most liberal candidates.

State Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte lost in the Democratic primary, in part, because his opponent criticized him for working with the Republican legislative leadership in helping pass the budget. His place on the ticket will be taken by Mujtaba Mohammed, a former local Democratic official and assistant public defender.

In the Wake County commissioners' races, the Democratic majority was challenged by an insurgent slate of candidates who felt — although the commissioners had hiked school spending by more than $100 million since 2013-2014 — they had not provided enough money for the schools.

Incumbents Sig Hutchison, Matt Calabria and James West survived their challenges, but John Burns and Erv Portman were defeated by Vickie Adamson and Susan Evans.

The victories by Adamson and Evans underscored that Tuesday was a good day for women — many of whom have been mobilized, first by the Trump election, and then by the series of sexual harassment scandals.

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Former state Rep. Linda Coleman of Raleigh easily defeated Ken Romley, a well-financed candidate, to capture the Democratic nomination for the 2nd Congressional District. Coleman will face Holding in the fall.

A record 119 women were running for legislative seats this year, according to the League of Women Voters of North Carolina — compared to just 24 in 2014.

Perhaps no race underscored the #MeToo moment more than the state House race, in which Democratic Rep. Duane Hall, accused of sexual harassment, was defeated by Allison Dahle, a little-known office manager at a law firm, by a 68-26 percent margin.

Hall placed yard signs throughout his Raleigh-area district. But someone painted pink lips on Hall’s signs – perhaps an indication of things to come.

Campaign signs for N.C. House candidate Duane Hall have been marked with a pink stencil of red lips amid allegations of sexual misconduct that Hall has denied. This sign was photographed on Monday, May 7, 2018, at the intersection of Maynard and Walnut streets in Cary, N.C. Robert Willett
Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack