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Primary defeats could be bad sign for GOP

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

With no statewide races and only 14 percent of voters bothering to participate, it's hard to make sweeping pronouncements about what last week's primary results mean.

A lot of the upsets involved specific issues. Only one race turned into a referendum on sexual harassment allegations. Only one race featured an infusion of cash from angry eye surgeons. And only one race featured a debate over whether the incumbent lied about her profession.

Without those wacky developments, things might have turned out differently. But with that caveat, here's my best effort at Big Picture Expert Analysis from the primary results:

Legislative incumbents had a rough night. Voters tossed out far more experienced politicians in this primary than they did in 2014 or 2016. In all, eight incumbent legislators lost their seats — not to mention U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger's defeat in the GOP primary. In addition, House Rep. Sam Watford, R-Davidson, failed to secure his party's nomination for an open Senate seat, and the once-powerful Sen. Bob Rucho couldn't persuade enough voters to send him back to the Senate.

By contrast, only two incumbent legislators lost their seats in the 2016 primary. One of them was seriously ill, unable to campaign, and died on election night. In 2014, four incumbents were unseated by primary challengers.

Was redistricting to blame? After all, lots of lawmakers are introducing themselves to new voters after a court-order redraw of gerrymandered districts. That explanation applies to Sens. Dan Barrett, R-Davie, and Shirley Randleman, R-Wilkes, because redistricting forced them to face off against fellow incumbents.

But other defeated incumbents like Reps. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, and Beverly Boswell, R-Dare, lost their home counties. And incumbents down the ballot lost too — Democratic county commissioners in Wake and sheriffs in Durham and Mecklenburg.

The "throw the bums out" attitude affected both political parties in the primary, but looking ahead to the general election in November, the trend will be more troubling for North Carolina Republicans.

We already knew Democrats are energized and eager to vote against President Donald Trump's party this year. Even in the primary, the Democratic Party had better turnout. In the 9th Congressional district where the heated GOP contest between Pittenger and minister Mark Harris attracted the most attention, 10,000 more voters participated in the Democratic primary — where Dan McCready was virtually assured of victory.

In the face of that momentum, Republicans need to energize their base and unite their supporters behind the accomplishments of the GOP majorities in Washington and Raleigh. With sweeping tax cuts and a booming economy, that might seem easy.

But the primary results show that message ain't working. Former Sen. Rucho was one of the chief architects of state income tax cuts, and he only received about a third of the vote. GOP voters spurned Rucho's record and instead picked a local planning board member with stronger ties to the community.

Senate leader Phil Berger wasn't on the ballot himself, but several of his loyal foot soldiers fell short. Sen. David Curtis, R-Lincoln, couldn't overcome heavy spending by a group of eye surgeons who didn't like a bill involving their industry. Berger's lieutenants fought hard against the Senate campaign of Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, but he won anyway. Other key senators had tough primary battles but managed to survive.

The GOP's biggest primary winners were notable figures in the culture wars. House Bill 2's sponsor, Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, was outspent by a challenger who opposed his stance on LGBT issues. And while HB2 hurt the GOP in the 2016 general election, the party's primary voters rewarded Bishop with 71 percent of the vote. Three House firebrands known for controversial statements on guns, Abraham Lincoln and immigration also won their primaries.

GOP campaign consultants might interpret that as a sign that hot-button social issues could help drive turnout in November. Expect to hear more ads about transgender bathroom access, illegal immigrants and gun rights as the election approaches.

Buckle up, folks. The primary might not have garnered much interest, but the rest of campaign season promises to be a wild ride.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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