RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina voters were deciding on Super Tuesday which Democrat they believe can unseat Sen. Thom Tillis and whether the current GOP lieutenant governor is the one best suited to oust Gov. Roy Cooper in the fall.
Dozens of nominations for federal, state government and legislative seats appear on primary ballots below the high-profile choices for president that brought massive candidate operations and advertising to the state in recent weeks.
Primary results should set the fall election lineups for seats currently held by Cooper and Tillis. Both had their own primaries but were expected to win, with Tillis facing three GOP rivals little known statewide. Cooper faced Ernest Reeves, who has run unsuccessfully for several elected positions.
Voters also winnowed the fields for lieutenant governor, school superintendent and other Council of State positions. Democratic primary voters in two congressional districts now favoring the party after a recent redistricting were picking nominees who stood a strong chance to reach Capitol Hill next year.
Unaffiliated voters, who make up one-third of the state’s electorate, are the primary wild cards since they can participate in the Democratic or Republican primaries. About 778,000 people cast ballots during the early in-person voting period that ended Saturday. Overall primary voting could reach three times that number if it follows previous presidential years.
For the Senate, five Democrats sought to challenge Tillis, led by former state legislator Cal Cunningham and current state Sen. Erica Smith. Cunningham, an Iraq War veteran, and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate was the leading fundraiser in the primary. He was endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and benefited from more than $9 million in outside spending from two super PACs.
Some of the super PAC ads sought to counter pro-Smith commercials paid for by an unusual source: a group linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The GOP effort was designed to weaken Cunningham among progressive voters by pointing out he didn’t support the Green New Deal or Medicaid for All. The campaign of Smith, who backs those policies, still blasted the interference, adding that black women “are not chess pawns for D.C. committees.” Smith would become the first African American female senator from the South if elected.
Meanwhile, Tillis was ultimately spared from an expensive race against well-funded challengers who either didn’t run or pulled out. Questions about Tillis’ loyalty to President Donald Trump by hardline Republicans have subsided in recent months, particularly during Trump’s impeachment.
In the race for governor, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest had the fundraising and organizational advantages over state Rep. Holly Grange in the Republican primary. While Forest won statewide elections for lieutenant governor in 2012 and 2016, Grange questioned his electability in November against Cooper, who had a whopping $9.5 million in his campaign coffers a few weeks ago. Forest had $750,000.
Forest, a favorite of social conservatives who strongly supported the state’s 2016 divisive “bathroom bill,” has used his position to promote broadband access and financial literacy for K-12 students among other policies. Grange said Forest was divisive.
For Congress, voters are picking nominees for the Piedmont-area 2nd and 6th Districts and far-western 11th District, where each Republican chose not to seek reelection. Reps. George Holding of Raleigh and Mark Walker of Greensboro cited the November redrawing of the state’s congressional map after a court ruling for their decisions.
Both districts became more Democratic, so the winner among the five Democrats in the 6th District and four Democrats in the 2nd District will be strong favorites in the fall. In the still Republican-leaning 11th District, where GOP Rep. Mark Meadows decided against running again, 12 Republicans and five Democrats were on Tuesday’s primary ballots. May runoffs are possible if the top vote-getter fails to exceed a 30% threshold.
Runoffs are also possible for lieutenant governor, where nine Republicans and six Democrats are seeking to succeed Forest. One is GOP Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.
One or both major parties held primaries for the other seven positions on the Council of State, composed of statewide executive department leaders.
About two dozen General Assembly incumbents also faced primary rivals on Tuesday. All 170 House and Senate seats will be on November ballots. Republicans currently hold slight seat advantages in either chamber.