Elections

2020 will be a hot election year in North Carolina. Candidates are already lining up.

The new year is barely two weeks old. So why are so many candidates kicking off their campaigns for next year?

Candidates already are off and running in elections that won’t take place for more than a year. They’re raising money, looking for staff and drumming up support.

The biggest reason for the early start: the calendar.

A law passed in June moves all the 2020 primaries from May to March. Next year that means a March 3 primary — the state’s earliest ever. Candidate filing begins Dec. 2; absentee voting starts in January. (The law makes permanent a change that first occurred in 2016, although that primary did not include congressional races.)

Add to that a full slate of races from president to U.S. Senate, governor and virtually every other statewide and local office. That’s in contrast to last year when the only statewide races were for the appellate court.

“If 2018 was a ‘blue moon’ election, 2020 is likely to be a ‘triple moon’ election,” said Jonathan Kappler, who tracks elections for the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation.

Democrat Trevor Fuller, a Mecklenburg County commissioner, plans to announce a run for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, already has begun building his campaign team.

Democratic Secretary of State Elaine Marshall faces another challenge from Republican Michael LaPaglia, who lost in 2016.

And with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest expected to challenge Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, the line to replace him is growing.

State Sen. Terry Van Duyn of Asheville and former Sen. Cal Cunningham of Lexington, both Democrats, already have launched campaigns. A handful of others are considering. Among them: former state Sen. Malcolm Graham and Rep. Chaz Beasley, both Charlotte Democrats, former GOP Rep. Scott Stone of Charlotte and Republican Jim Puckett, a former Mecklenburg commissioner.

“It’s impacting everybody,” Graham said of the new calendar. “That December date is staring everybody right in the face. So if you want be out there and be competitive you have to test the waters and talk to funders and supporters.”

The calendar also is a big factor for Puckett.

“You file in December,” he said, “and there’s no way in the world you can run a statewide race from December to March.”

Then there’s the ever-escalating cost to run.

Tillis’ 2014 race against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan was the nation’s most expensive ever at that point with $121 million spent by candidates and outside groups.

In 2016, Cooper and then-Republican Gov. Pat McCrory spend more than $41 million. And in 2018, at least two Democrats, Reps. Rachel Hunt of Mecklenburg and Sen. Sam Searcy of Wake County, raised more than $1 million.

If I were (a candidate) I would rather know now than later if I could be competitive financially to have a viable candidacy,” said Kappler.

Just as North Carolina candidates are jumping in, so are presidential candidates. Attracting them to the state was one reason lawmakers moved the 2020 primaries to March.

As in 2016, the idea is to give North Carolina a bigger voice in the presidential election. Next year’s March 3 primary will come just three days after the South Carolina Democratic primary but on the same day as eight other states including California.

How big an impact the state has depends on several factors including the size of the presidential field and where candidates choose to spend their time and money. The 2016 primaries drew several candidates including Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“It depends on how you want to define impact,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at UNC Wilmington and author of a blog on presidential primaries. “If impact is drawing in the candidates and their campaign spending, then they’re likely to see some of that.”

An immediate impact of the early primary is drawing out would-be candidates for other offices.

“Everybody’s dreaming, everyone’s got the potential,” Kappler said. “And whether they’re able to capitalize on that depends on whether they’re able to get their campaign off the ground.”

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.
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