Even this year, incumbents roll

The Observer editorial board

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams greets voters Tuesday. She won easily in a newly drawn 12th District.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams greets voters Tuesday. She won easily in a newly drawn 12th District. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

All hail the establishment!

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have shown the power of an anti-establishment message this year. But if N.C. voters have that fever, they weren’t enough of the 8 percent who bothered to vote in an unusual summer primary on Tuesday.

In Charlotte-area congressional races, it was the two incumbents – Democrat Alma Adams in the 12th District and Republican Robert Pittenger in the 9th (pending a possible recount) – who won renomination and will be heavy favorites to hold on to their seats in November. And Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds was the top vote-getter in his bid for a third term.

Their victories demonstrate the power of incumbency, even in a year when a lot of voters say they are angry. Adams and Pittenger were both hounded by questions that made them appear vulnerable, were running in new districts against credible candidates in a low-turnout election in an anti-incumbent environment. And yet Adams rolled and Pittenger survived.

When legislators converted Adams’ district from America’s most gerrymandered to North Carolina’s most compact, she found herself living 100 miles away from the new district. Her opponents emphasized their Charlotte roots and Adams faced questions about her residency and her familiarity with the new voters.

She was pitted against qualified challengers in former Sen. Malcolm Graham and Rep. Tricia Cotham. Both have long public service records and are known well in the new 12th.

Pittenger is under FBI investigation related to his former real estate company. He stumbled Monday when he claimed endorsements from Donald Trump and Mike Huckabee that didn’t exist. And he faced almost entirely new voters, with a new 9th District that picked up only a small part of the old 9th before stretching eastward past Fayetteville. He faced two Republican challengers who portrayed him as being insufficiently conservative and too cozy with the establishment.

Pittenger got a scare, to be sure, and might still face a recount. He came in last in seven of the eight counties that make up the new 9th District. He did well only in Mecklenburg, where he won 48 percent of the vote, enough to narrowly edge Mark Harris and Todd Johnson.

Tuesday’s primary, following a regular primary in March, took place only because a federal court threw out the congressional districts as an illegal gerrymander. The June date and short ballot attracted few voters. Such low turnout can make an election especially unpredictable, but it wasn’t enough for the challengers to overcome the incumbents’ advantage.

In the Supreme Court race, Edmunds cruised after he and his surrogates touted him as the most conservative candidate on the ballot. It’s disappointing and dangerous to watch this state’s judiciary grow increasingly political rather than impartial. Sadly, though, we worry that that trend will only intensify.