RALEIGH – New N.C. General Assembly district boundaries approved last year put North Carolina Republicans in the rare position of having the advantage over Democrats to preserve their new majorities in the legislature through the rest of the decade.
But the new district maps and the party that got to draw them for the first time in decades are giving both Democratic and Republican incumbents immediate headaches leading to the May 8 primary. Changing population patterns and voting records mean several sitting lawmakers have all they can handle to survive their primaries.
Well-funded rivals and former legislators are mounting challenges to current lawmakers they believe are vulnerable. That’s because swaths of voters have changed the electoral composition of districts or the legislators have made controversial decisions, such as voting for the Republican-penned budget. The maps also have required a few pairs of legislators to run against each other in the same districts.
The primaries appear more important than usual because more nominees won’t face a general election opponent compared to two years ago, according to election data, meaning the primary winner will serve in the Legislature. There are 21 House and 10 Senate seats that will be decided by the primary. In 2010, a Republican effort to have candidates run for nearly all 170 legislative districts increased the number of contested seats in the general election.
“The primaries are essentially the election in so many of the districts now, the Republican and the Democratic side,” said Jonathan Kappler, research director at the nonpartisan North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, which tracks legislative races for business interests. “To some degree, it reflects what we’ve seen for a long time in the (state’s) congressional races.”
The incumbents facing the most difficult challenges include House Democrats who voted for the Republican budget and helped override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of the state government spending plan, which made education and health cuts because a temporary sales tax was allowed to expire. Three of these five conservative Democrats decided to retire, but the other two are working to survive.
One of them is Rep. Bill Brisson, D-Bladen, who is being opposed by the North Carolina Association of Educators in part for his budget vote.
Matt Dixon, an Elizabethtown lawyer making his first run for elected office, said he began considering a run against Brisson after the budget vote. “It just bothered me that one of the ‘Gang of Five’ was in my district,” Dixon said, adding that for Brisson “to vote with Republicans on issues that are obviously drawn along party lines, it questions loyalty to the party.”
North Carolina Advocates for Justice, the state’s trial lawyers’ group, has been running a cable television commercial in Brisson’s district criticizing him for backing a bill that would have granted drug companies immunity from some lawsuits if federal regulators had approved the drug for sale. The provision didn’t become law. Brisson said the group has sent out several mailers.
“They’re bashing me pretty good,” said Brisson, who is now getting support from the North Carolina Chamber. The outcome likely will come down to which candidate performs best in Sampson County, which wasn’t in Brisson’s district in 2010 but now comprises 61 percent of the redrawn district. No Republican is running for the seat.
The other “Gang of Five” member, 14-term Rep. Jim Crawford of Granville County, is battling Rep. Winkie Wilkins of Person County. The Democratic pair was drawn into the same district. Crawford, who was named a top budget-writer several months ago, has become the subject of a state ethics complaint because legislative workers were extras in a campaign commercial. Crawford calls the complaint politically motivated — it was filed by a representative of a liberal advocacy group already critical of him. Jason Jenkins of Creedmoor is also on the primary ballot.
First-term Democratic Rep. Marcus Brandon of Guilford County didn’t vote for the budget bill, but he’s still being critiqued as being too close to Republicans by former Rep. Earl Jones, whom Brandon beat in the 2010 primary. Jones called Brandon a “Republican in Democrat’s clothing” for backing aggressively the elimination of the 100-school cap on charter school and voting for worker’s compensation reform that capped benefits for some injured workers.
“He’s been pretty consistent in supporting the Republican agenda,” said Jones, a former Greensboro city councilman. The primary winner in the majority-black district will clinch the general election.
Brandon was the lone House Democrat who voted for one version of the charter school expansion bill that ultimately was supported by nearly all of the Democrats in its final form. Brandon said he isn’t going to stick his head in the sand and refuse to work with Republicans simply because Democrats aren’t in charge. Instead, Brandon said, Jones spent too much time while in the House pushing longshot bills to legalize medical marijuana and regulate video poker.
“It’s not that I support Republican views,” Brandon said, adding that “I just think that you have abdicated your responsibility if you refuse to work with them simply because of ideological difference or because they have an ‘R’ beside their name.”
Republicans also are facing tough primary challenges partly due to redistricting. Rep. Larry Brown of Forsyth County is facing two well-connected challengers in county commissioner Debra Conrad as well as Glenn Cobb, who’s gotten fundraising help from two former governors and U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
Rep. Julia Howard of Davie County, senior co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, is being challenged by Forsyth County Commissioner Bill Whiteheart, an outdoor advertising company owner. Howard’s district used to be evenly split between Davie and Iredell counties. Now it’s divided between Davie and Forsyth.
Rep. Stephen LaRoque of Lenoir County, co-chairman of the House Rules Committee, is running against Wayne County GOP leader John Bell. LaRoque is running in a reconfigured district and has been scrutiny for his business practices involving federal economic development grants.
Appointed House members Jason Saine of Lincoln County and Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County face noteworthy primary challenges. Reps. Efton Sager, R-Wayne, and Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, are going against each other because they were drawn into the same district. First-term Rep. Kelly Hastings of Gaston County has a rematch with former Rep. Pearl Burris Floyd, whom Hastings unseated in the 2010 GOP primary.
Current senators with significant primary challenges include Democratic Sen. Clark Jenkins of Edgecombe County; first-term Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford, and freshman Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, who is facing former House member George Robinson. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, doesn’t appear to be taking any chances in his primary by running a television ad in a district that includes more of Guilford County than before.
Four current House members — Democrat Earline Parmon and Republicans Bill Cook, Norman Sanderson and Glen Bradley — are running in Senate primaries. Former Rep. Karen Ray is one of two challengers to recently appointed GOP Sen. Chris Carney.
Two men named Don Davis — one a former House Republican from Harnett County and the other an ex-senator from Greene County — are running in separate Senate primaries. Former Democratic Rep. Arthur Williams of Beaufort County has changed parties and is running in a House GOP primary.