State Politics

Campaign season off to an early start in NC

Two voters at center have to walk the gauntlet of campaign workers for area candidates and issues as they go to vote at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill, NC Tuesday, November 3, 2015.
Two voters at center have to walk the gauntlet of campaign workers for area candidates and issues as they go to vote at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill, NC Tuesday, November 3, 2015. hlynch@newsobserver.com

The candidate filing period for the 2016 elections opens Tuesday, launching the campaign season early thanks to a primary date that’s been moved up from May to March.

Voters will head to the polls on March 15 to help pick their party’s nominee for president, governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the state legislature.

State lawmakers picked the new date to make North Carolina a bigger player in the presidential nominating process – in years past, the presidential ballot was often set by the time North Carolinians got to vote. But this year’s schedule gives candidates less than four months to make their case before the primary.

The early filing period, which runs through Dec. 21, has meant that most candidates have already announced their plans for 2016. Competitive seats have already attracted multiple candidates, and a number of veteran legislators and statewide officials have said they won’t seek reelection.

“For any candidate wanting to run, they’ve got to be in the organizational phase right now, or it’s already getting too late,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “It’s going to be a quick four months from the filing period to the primary.”

North Carolina still won’t be among the first states to hold a primary, and others have also shifted to a March date. Florida and Ohio will also hold their primaries on March 15, so it’s unclear how much the state will see of the presidential contenders.

“I think we will certainly get our fair share of attention and media buy, but we are one of two competitive battleground states on that same date,” Bitzer said. “The candidates can only be in one place at one time.”

By the time North Carolina votes, Democratic voters might have less reason to go to the polls, according to Steven Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State. “It is far more likely that the Democratic primaries will be settled by March than the Republicans will, which will really advantage Republican turnout,” he said.

And while the campaign for governor has been gearing up for months, other races have also taken shape ahead of the filing period. Here’s a look at them:

U.S. Senate: Republican Sen. Richard Burr’s incumbency will give him a fundraising advantage, and Democrats struggled to recruit a well-known candidate.

Entering the filing period, the party’s frontrunner is former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh. Durham businessman Kevin Griffin and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey are also running in the Democratic primary.

Another Democrat, state Sen. Joel Ford of Charlotte, has been exploring a run for the seat but said last week that his 2016 plans aren’t set. “I’ve not made any decisions,” he said.

Burr won’t escape a challenge in the GOP primary. Retired N.C. Superior Court Judge Paul Wright of Wayne County has said he’ll run, and so has retired businessman Larry Holmquist of Greensboro.

U.S. House: With most Congressional districts in the state firmly dominated by one party, expect most of the action to occur in the March primaries. Several Republican incumbents, most notably Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn and Rep. Walter Jones of Farmville, are already fending off primary challengers.

Council of State: Two statewide elected officials, Attorney General Roy Cooper and Treasurer Janet Cowell, aren’t seeking reelection. If incumbents run in the other races – and most have announced that they will – attorney general and treasurer will be the closely fought races.

Both parties, Bitzer said, “have a pretty good shot at claiming an open seat.”

Two state senators, Republican Buck Newton of Wilson and Democrat Josh Stein of Raleigh, have been campaigning for attorney general for months. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neil is also seeking the GOP nomination.

The field of candidates is less clear in the treasurer’s race, where Cowell’s departure came as a surprise. Democrat Ron Elmer has announced that he’s running, and Republicans are watching former legislator and Division of Employment Security head Dale Folwell, who’s been interested in the race and could make an announcement this week.

N.C. General Assembly: Since the legislature ended a grueling eight-month session, a number of incumbents have announced that they won’t seek another term.

The departures include leading Republicans like Sen. Bob Rucho, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam and Rep. Leo Daughtry. Influential Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca joined that list on Monday, announcing he will not seek re-election.

So far, those departures total eight House Republicans, one unaffiliated House member, two House Democrats, four Senate Republicans and one Senate Democrat – not counting the legislators who resigned this year.

Legislative leaders say they don’t expect any more incumbents to drop out.

While the number of legislative retirements is slightly higher than in 2014, Rep. Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg County says it’s not unusual.

“Empirically speaking, this has not been as high in turnover as some of the most recent elections,” said Jeter, who’s in charge of recruiting candidates as the Republican conference chairman.

The reasons for the departures vary, Jeter said. Some are veteran legislators who have accomplished their policy goals. Others are younger leaders who want to spend more time with families and jobs than they’ve spent driving to Raleigh for low legislative salaries.

“I think everybody has individual reasons,” he said.

Most of the vacant legislative seats are in districts that lean heavily Republican or Democrat. Jeter says Republicans have met their goals for recruiting new candidates, and his party is looking at “eight or nine” Democratic seats that it could win and “11 or 12 (Republican seats) that we’re going to have to play defense in.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have said they’d like to pick up four seats in the House – enough to break the Republican supermajority in the chamber and prevent the GOP from overriding the governor’s veto. If a Democrat wins the governor’s race, that could substantially change the power dynamic in state government.

Because of the way that Republican legislators have drawn the districts, bigger changes in the legislature are unlikely.

“I don’t see that the districts allow for the Democrats to think about getting majority control,” Bitzer said.

Campbell: 919-829-4698

Apodaca: Politics not ‘driving force’

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and one of North Carolina’s most powerful lawmakers, said Monday that he won’t run for an eighth term.

His decision comes on the eve of candidate filing and on the heels of a similar announcement by veteran GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, guaranteeing a shake-up in Senate leadership.

“We’ve come to a point where we’ve accomplished almost everything we set out to,” Apodaca said Monday. “Politics has never been the driving force in my life.”

As Senate Rules chairman, Apodaca has determined which legislation got to the floor for a vote and which remained bottled up in committee. He’s regarded as the muscle of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger of Eden.

Rucho co-chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Apodaca said he thought about retiring before the start of the current session.

“The reality of the situation,” he said, “is I decided two years ago I wasn’t running again and Sen. Berger asked me to give him two more years, and I did.”

Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer

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