Barbara Harrison is just the kind of voter who’ll decide who wins the Republican primary in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.
She’s a senior citizen who always votes. She’s a social conservative. And she’s a fierce supporter of President Donald Trump.
That’s the profile of voters that analysts expect to show up for the special, May 14 GOP primary, an election almost certain to draw a low turnout.
“(Turnout) is a wild card,” said Paul Shumaker, a Republican consultant not involved in the primary. “It’s all going to be determined by the energy the candidates are going to be able to generate with the voters.”
The expected turnout is shaping strategies for candidates who, less than a month from Election Day, remain relatively unknown. A private poll earlier this month found none of the 10 Republican candidates with name recognition above 50 percent. It also found a plurality of primary voters undecided.
Early voting starts Wednesday throughout the eight-county district that runs from Charlotte to Fayetteville.
State elections officials called for new election in February after a hearing on allegations of election fraud marred the 2018 contest. If no candidate gets 30 percent of the vote on May 14, a runoff would be held Sept. 10 with a general election Nov. 5. If there’s no runoff, the general election would be Sept. 10.
Shumaker said turnout could be as low as 15 percent — about 31,000 voters — or as high as 25 percent. Whatever the turnout, he said, seven out of 10 people who come to the polls likely will be over 65. They’ll be reliable voters and very conservative.
And like Harrison, a retired health care professional from Weddington, they’ll probably live in Union or Mecklenburg counties, which together account for three out of four 9th District Republicans.
To get a forecast of turnout, turn to eastern North Carolina’s 3rd District where 17 Republicans are competing in an April 30 primary to succeed the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.
There, early-voting is slow. Craven County Elections Director Meloni Wray said it’s lagging even the most recent runoff primary. Runoffs always see lower turnout than the first primary. She predicts just 12 percent of Craven voters will turn out for the special primary.
To reach such voters in the 9th District, candidates and their supporters are doing everything from knocking on doors to targeting mail boxes and social media to blanketing the district with TV ads.
Money guides strategy
For candidates, strategies depend on money. And the budgets for 9th District Republicans and their allies range from more than $1 million to virtually nothing.
State Sen. Dan Bishop has raised six times more than any rival: $387,000, according to a report filed this month with the Federal Election Commission. That included a $250,000 loan to his campaign.
He’s spending money on targeted mailings and a cable TV ad that features him next to inflatable clowns with the faces of Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate in the 9th District.
Matthew Ridenhour, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, had $62,000 in his account at the end of March. He’s relying on mailings and grassroots campaigning to make sure people know about his record and that, like McCready, he’s a former Marine. Like Bishop, he’s campaigning against Washington Democrats.
“I didn’t complete two tours in Iraq to have our country threatened by socialist Democrats,” says one mailer over a picture of him in uniform.
Stony Rushing is a Union County commissioner with a smaller budget but close ties to Republican Mark Harris, a former Charlotte pastor who ran for the seat in 2018 and has endorsed Rushing. The same private poll that found most candidates still relatively unknown found Harris still popular among GOP voters with favorability ratings higher than current candidates.
Voters, said Rushing campaign manager Conrad Pogorzelski, ”loved Mark and his word carries weight with some of these folks.”
The best-financed campaign appears to belong to Leigh Brown, a real estate broker from Cabarrus County. That’s because she’s gotten lots of help.
The National Realtors Association political action committee is spending at least nearly $1.1 million on TV, radio and digital ads touting Brown, according to FEC filings.
Brown, a relative political newcomer, reported raising $39,000 through March, though advisers say she’s now reached six figures.
“If anybody thinks she can’t put together a well-oiled machine to take on Dan McCready, then they don’t know Leigh Brown,” said her consultant, Chris Sinclair. “A lot of people are telling her it’s about time we had a fresh face . . . She’s an outsider.”
How much TV buys for her or anybody will work in a low-turnout election is unclear.
“So much of your TV advertising is paying for messages to people who aren’t going to show up at the polls,” said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte.
But UNCC’s Dan Grano, who teaches media and politics, said, “If you have the money, (TV) gives you a shot at reaching people hard to reach with digital advertising.”
Harrison, who is active in a Union County Republican group, said her friends worked hard for Harris, helping him get more than 51,000 votes last November.
“We’re concerned that because of this election, Dan McCready will get in . . . because we won’t get the turnout that we need to beat him,” she said. “People are tired, physically tired, and here we are again. They just don’t have the energy to get out and work as hard as they just did.”.