A glut of primaries for state House and Senate seats has turned what could have been waltzes for some incumbents into all-out battles. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday and will narrow the field in Republican or Democratic primaries in nearly one-third of the state’s 170 legislative districts.
In some cases, the fiercest competition for the seat is in the primary because legislative districts are drawn to favor either the Democratic or Republican candidate. And the results will go a long way in determining who ends up helping make laws next year. Twenty-four legislators will be chosen this primary season because the party’s winners will face no opposition in November.
It’s typical for vacant legislative seats to draw a crowd of candidates. Five Democrats, for example, are vying to replace Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, who is running for the U.S. House.
But this year, some veteran and influential legislators seeking re-election are facing opponents from their own parties:
• Senate firebrand Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and co-chairman of his chamber’s Finance Committee, is running against a lawyer who says he’ll do the job with less drama and no controversial Twitter messages.
• Rep. Jim Fulghum of Raleigh is running for a Senate seat against a Republican who says she’s more conservative.
• Republican Sen. Ralph Hise, co-chairman of a budget subcommittee on health and human services, is facing a spirited challenge from a McDowell County commissioner endorsed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina and the N.C. Association of Educators.
Some Democratic incumbents are in primaries this year, too. But with Republicans in firm control of the legislature and no Democrats in real positions of power, the outcome of Democratic primaries doesn’t have statewide consequences.
Few legislative districts are considered “swing” districts that either party could win. In the Senate district Rucho represents, Mitt Romney won 57 percent of the presidential vote in 2012 versus Barack Obama’s 42 percent.
The Raleigh Senate seat that Fulghum wants is considered one of the more competitive in November, but a Republican candidate still holds an advantage. Romney beat Obama in the district 52 percent to 47 percent.
Vying for control
The state Senate has 33 Republicans and 17 Democrats; the state House has 77 Republicans and 43 Democrats.
Fifty-five legislators have already effectively been re-elected because they face no primary or general election opposition. The party breakdown isn’t expected to change much after the general election. Nor is it likely that better-funded incumbents will lose. But the challenges themselves say something about the changes within the parties.
There have been fierce inside-party feuds in the past, but lawmakers at or near the top of the legislative hierarchy have rarely drawn a primary challenge. When they did, the challengers were typically considered irritating upstarts.
Those unwritten rules seem to have gone by the wayside as legislators considered among the most effective have primary challengers. Rucho was named the fifth most effective senator in the latest N.C. Center for Public Policy Research survey. Hise was the 9th most effective of the 50. Rep. Justin Burr, a House budget writer from Albemarle who also has a primary opponent, ranked 9th in the 120-member House.
Chris Sinclair, a Republican political consultant, said the primaries are evidence of a Republican Party in transition. Challengers want to be a part of the majority, Sinclair said. At the same time, local and state parties are less active in recruiting and vetting candidates than they were in the past, he said, leaving politically aware citizens feeling free to challenge incumbents.
Republican Apryl Major of Raleigh is running in Wake County against Fulghum for the Senate seat Neal Hunt is vacating. Major, an engineer and compliance quality manager, says she is more conservative than Fulghum. She highlights that Fulghum’s wife co-founded the Raleigh Planned Parenthood office in 1980 and points to an interview he gave in early 2013 where he appeared to support expanding Medicaid, the state and federal health program for the poor, aged and disabled.
In 2012, Major ran as a write-in candidate in a heavily Democratic Raleigh House district, garnering fewer than 400 votes. Fulghum is serving his first House term.
“He has a strong affiliation, or ties, to Planned Parenthood,” Major said.
Fulghum, a retired neurosurgeon, called the story “old news” and said questions about Planned Parenthood should be directed to his wife, who is also a medical doctor.
“That’s just a question that’s not relevant to what I believe today or have anything to do with,” he said.
Planned Parenthood in Raleigh was founded as a family planning clinic and “had nothing to do with abortions,” he added.
In an interview published by N.C. Policy Watch in January 2013, Fulghum is quoted on Medicaid expansion: “It has to happen. There will be a way to make that happen. I despair at seeing people in a situation where they’re in pain” without means to pay for medical treatment. “We need to know how much the state obligation is.”
Fulghum said last week he was not in support of Medicaid expansion, but he said his comment was “a recognition that Medicaid patients were increasing in number.”
Fulghum points to his voting record as a House member to support his conservative credentials. Of his more than 1,300 votes, nearly 97 percent were cast with the majority, including one for a bill that prohibited Medicaid expansion.
“What I believe and how I voted speak volumes, I think,” Fulghum said.
Fulghum holds a distinct fundraising advantage over Major, as do most current officeholders over their opponents. He had raised more than $100,000, according to an April 28 report to the State Board of Elections, while Major had raised a bit more than $3,000.
Rucho has the funding
Incumbents can rely on established donor bases and political action committees to help beat challengers in the race for campaign money.
In the Mecklenburg County Senate district where Matt Arnold and Rucho are competing, voters are being flooded with mailers that call the challenger liberal and imply he supports the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Rucho has raised more than $250,000 so far, and Arnold, who is making his first run for office, raised about $40,000, according to the latest campaign finance reports.
A recent mailer features a close-up of Arnold’s face flanked by President Barack Obama and disgraced former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.
Arnold says it is all untrue, as is Rucho’s assertion that Advocates for Justice, the association of trial lawyers, recruited him to run against the incumbent.
“The vicious attacks from Mr. Rucho are unwarranted and untruthful,” Arnold said.
Rucho, who is in his seventh full term, was a newsmaker last year for his legislative work and his Twitter feed. He did extensive work on the new tax law, but when the proposal began to deviate from his vision, he tried to resign his finance chairmanship. In a letter to Senate leader Phil Berger, Rucho blamed Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis for lacking leadership or “political backbone to fight the special-interest groups who favor loopholes over a fair tax system.”
In December, Rucho made national news with his tweet “Justice Robert’s (sic) pen & Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then (sic) the sword of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined.”
Arnold said Rucho’s outbursts reflect poorly on the district.
“The conservative agenda is going to proceed,” he said. “Good things are going to happen. The question is whether they’re going to happen in way that embarrasses our district or makes us proud.”
Though he has a significant money advantage over Arnold, Rucho was out greeting voters at a polling site last week.
“Consider Bob Rucho, please,” he said to a passer-by.
Rucho said he has delivered on his promises by working to reform the tax structure, which he credited with the state’s job growth.
“North Carolina has become an example of economic growth and prosperity and opening opportunities to people,” Rucho said. “That’s what I’m running on, and will continue to work in that direction.”
SEANC behind challenger
Interest groups run independent campaigns in support of candidates, as the N.C. Chamber of Commerce is doing for Rucho.
But they can be a factor for challengers, too. The State Employees Association of North Carolina PAC is investing heavily to defeat incumbent Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine.
Hise, a former SEANC member but an outspoken critic of unions, canceled his membership when SEANC became affiliated with the Service Employees International Union in 2008.
Hise, who is in his second term, wanted to end the ability of state employees to have SEANC dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. He also sponsored a bill last year that allows the state treasurer to increase investment in real estate and other alternatives, a measure SEANC fought.
The state employee PAC is spending $200,000 in the district to criticize Hise, running radio and full-page newspaper ads dubbing him “Raleigh Ralph.” Hise is the PAC’s top target because of the pension investment bill and a budget provision he wrote that led to layoffs of state dental hygienists who check school children’s teeth.
Hise said the intense primary feels more like a general election.
He stands by the law allowing the alternative investments, saying that heavy investment in the bond market represents the biggest risk to the pension fund.
Hise said his challenger, Michael Lavender, does not represent traditional Republican views because he criticizes the tax law and voted as a county commissioner a few years ago against a resolution supporting the constitutional amendment on marriage.
Lavender, also endorsed by the N.C. Association of Educators, said the legislature has let educators down and enacted a tax law that benefits the wealthy. The legislature capped the tax on yachts while increasing the sales tax on mobile homes, he said.
Lavender said he opposed the marriage resolution because it’s not right for a governmental body to tell people how to vote.
“I’m a Republican because I believe in limited government,” he said. “When I looked at taxation and education issues and a host of others, I said I need to do something.”