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Odd-year primaries yield even-year outcomes

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John Hood

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Congressional elections in odd-numbered years? Odd is certainly one way to describe what many North Carolinians are experiencing right now. But in some ways, the special elections of 2019 are confirming rather than breaking the political rules.

Those elections are in the 3rd District, which spans 17 counties in eastern North Carolina, and the 9th District, which stretches across eight southern counties from Charlotte to Fayetteville. I have three observations to make about the results so far.

The first is that special elections need not produce extraordinarily low turnout. In the 3rd District primary, where top vote-getters Greg Murphy and Joan Perry qualified for the Republican runoff and former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas won the Democratic nomination, about 14.5 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. By comparison, the average turnout in North Carolina’s 2018 primaries was 14.4 percent. It was 7.7 percent in the 2016 congressional primaries (which were held in June, separate from other races) and 15.8 percent in 2014.

Yes, when N.C. Sen. Dan Bishop clinched Tuesday’s GOP primary for the 9th District, the turnout was less than 10 percent. But only Republicans had a primary. The total votes cast, 31,237, wasn’t vastly lower than the 35,643 cast in the district’s 2018 GOP primary, and exceeded the 26,606 cast in 2016.

The second observation is that sitting state legislators tend to be strong candidates for higher office. Bishop, who previously served in the state house, won the 9th District GOP nomination outright. State Rep. Greg Murphy won 23 percent of the vote in the initial 3rd District primary, while his state house colleagues Phil Shepherd and Michael Speciale came in third and four place, respectively.

Naturally, Bishop did well in his own Mecklenburg senate district, while Murphy got 68 percent of his home county of Pitt, Shepherd won 51 percent in his home base of Onslow, and Speciale was the top vote-getter in his home of Craven. But legislators often fared well in neighboring counties — Murphy topped the ballot in Beaufort (next-door to Pitt), for example, and Speciale did so in Pamlico (next to Craven).

What explains these effects? A name on the ballot multiple times is a plus, as is news coverage of legislative service. But another clear advantage is that legislators are used to raising money. They have preexisting ties to donors, prospects, and potential institutional support.

Speaking of which, however, my third observation about the congressional primaries we’ve seen so far this year is that significant expenditure is a necessary but insufficient condition for success. The second-place finisher in the initial 3rd District contest, Dr. Joan Perry, isn’t a lawmaker or previous candidate. She did well — coming in first or second in eight of the district’s counties — because she was able to translate many years of civic and political engagement into a well-funded campaign as well as independent expenditures on her behalf by pro-life groups. Similarly, in the 9th District Dan Bishop also enjoyed both fundraising success and independent-expenditure support (from the Club for Growth, an economic-freedom organization).

But the effects of campaign spending are often exaggerated. Celeste Cairns in the 3rd and Leigh Brown in the 9th attracted major support from the Club for Growth and the National Association of Realtors, respectively. But they lacked a compelling message, a reason why voters should have preferred them to better-known candidates. If money were the overwhelming determinant of political success, as some claim, Cairns and Brown should have fared a lot better than they did.

Both of North Carolina’s special congressional elections will conclude on Sept. 10. Bishop will face Democrat Dan McCready, Libertarian Jeff Scott, and the Green Party’s Allen Smith in the 9th District. In the 3rd, Democrat Allen Thomas will face the winner of the GOP runoff between Murphy and Perry, as well as Libertarian Tim Harris and the Constitution Party’s Greg Holt.

Those general elections are expected to be largely about President Trump vs. the increasingly left-wing Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. Again, no big surprises.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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