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3 things to watch in the first special election primary of the year

17 Republicans running for North Carolina seat held by the late Rep. Walter Jones

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., speaks with reporters in Statuary Hall in May 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., speaks with reporters in Statuary Hall in May 2017. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Seventeen Republicans are vying Tuesday for the allegiance of GOP voters in 17 counties across eastern North Carolina in the first special election primary of the year.

The GOP contest in the 3rd District is likely just the first step toward determining who will succeed the late Walter B. Jones, a longtime Republican lawmaker known for bucking his own party. 

With so many GOP candidates battling for name recognition in a low-turnout race, it’s unlikely that any of them will surpass the 30 percent threshold to win the nomination outright. In that case, the top-two finishers will advance to a runoff in July, followed by a September special election. If there’s no runoff, the general election will be July 9.

Democrats have a primary, too, albeit a less crowded one with only six candidates. This largely rural district has long been Republican territory. Jones, who died in February, held the seat since 1995.  The independent-minded Republican had his fair share of competitive GOP primaries, but he didn’t face much Democratic opposition. He ran unopposed last fall.

President Donald Trump carried the district by 24 points in 2016. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

But decades of Republican success haven’t stopped a handful of Democrats from giving the race a shot in a district that, although it votes Republican, still has plenty of old-time Southern Democrats. 

As the votes come in Tuesday night, here are three things to watch that will offer clues as to how the rest of this race could play out — and what it all could mean for national politics.

1. Will a GOP woman finish in the top two? 

Out of 17 Republicans, the two candidates who received the backing of national outside GOP groups are women. (Three women are running for the nomination.)

That’s a big deal for a party that’s down to just 13 women in its House conference (from 23 during the previous Congress) and that has historically struggled to get women through primaries. 

Club for Growth Action has backed accountant Celeste Cairns, spending $200,000 on her behalf as of April 26. Pediatrician Joan Perry picked up the endorsement of several women’s groups. Susan B. Anthony List’s super PAC had spent about $86,000 on her behalf as of April 26, while Winning for Women Action Fund spent $200,000 for her through April 23. That’s significantly more than the relatively new group spent for women in primaries during the 2018 cycle. 

A handful of candidates, including Cairns, have other candidate-specific super PACs spending on their behalf, while others have been spending money on TV ads to grow their name ID. Tuesday’s primary will be a test of how influential outside spending from national groups can be in crowded primaries — and whether that influence extends to getting women across the finish line. 

The Club for Growth, for example, is credited with having boosted now-Rep. Ted Budd in a similarly crowded 17-person GOP primary in North Carolina’s 13th District in 2016. (It’s important to note, however, that there was no runoff provision for that primary.)

The club has traditionally been a major player in GOP primaries, but it’s not common for the conservative outside group to back a woman. Will its backing of Cairns help her finish ahead of politicians who likely started with better built-in name recognition? The same question goes for Winning for Women.

There’s another crowded special election primary in North Carolina just around the corner. Ten Republicans, including four women, are running for the GOP nod in the 9th District, on May 14.

2. What are the winning percentages? 

Assuming none of the Republicans receive 30 percent of the vote, the two candidates who finish with the highest vote totals will advance to the runoff on July 9.

But just how high will those percentages be? Probably not very high. Consultants aren’t expecting turnout to be much higher than about 30,000. If the first-place finisher wins 7,000 votes, for example, that creates a scenario under which the majority of GOP voters will have voted for someone else. 

In a scenario where the votes are relatively splintered among the 17 candidates, the top-two finishers will have more work to do to attract votes in the runoff. Also worth watching: Will outside groups that have already endorsed come back into the race behind another candidate if their first choice is eliminated?

3. Will a Democrat win outright? 

Only six Democrats are running for the nomination, and only two have attracted real support. A narrower field raises the possibility that one of them passes the 30 percent threshold Tuesday and becomes the nominee without a runoff. 

Democrats are optimistic that having their nominee in place while Republicans duke it out for another two months will give them an advantage heading into the general election. The fact that a majority of Republican voters could have originally voted for someone other than their eventual nominee could also be good news for Democrats, who will try to make this race competitive.

“It’s a tough district for Democrats in a normal election cycle,” North Carolina-based Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson said. “But in a special election in the Trump era, Democrats have a shot here that they traditionally wouldn’t have given the caliber of candidates they have.”

Jackson said both retired Marine Col. Richard “Otter” Bew and former Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas would be formidable Democratic nominees. (Jackson is not involved in the race, but his business partner is handling compliance for Thomas.)

Bew has national support among Democrats who think he brings the same military profile to a Trump district as many of 2018’s winning Democrats. That background could be especially relevant in a district that’s home to several military bases. Veterans of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are running Bew’s campaign and his media. VoteVets endorsed him. The New York Times profiled him and his buddy Scott Cooper, a retired lieutenant colonel who’s running for Congress in the neighboring 2nd District next year, and Bew has been using that piece repeatedly to fundraise.

“The New York Times says Richard could win,” a Monday fundraising solicitation reads, before alluding to a “final poll” that showed a “complete toss-up” in the Trump district. There have been no public polls of either the primary or a hypothetical general election. The missive never mentioned that the special election being held on Tuesday is a primary against five other Democrats.

Bew had raised $161,000 as of his last report to the Federal Election Commission on April 28. He contributed about $11,000 to his own campaign. Thomas had $269,000 as of April 28, but he loaned his campaign $200,000. 

As a former elected official, Thomas may have more local ties. He earned the financial backing of North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, for example. But he’s also faced some negative headlines in the final days of the race. A report from the state auditor’s office last week criticized how the executive director of North Carolina Global TransPark — who was Thomas then — oversaw its internal accounting. The report did not mention Thomas by name, and it’s not clear that news about the report gained much traction. 

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the fundraising of Allen Thomas, who loaned his campaign $200,000 on March 21.

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