RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Republicans are heading for a lively and rapid-fire faceoff to decide who'll represent the GOP in a new North Carolina congressional election mandated after a ballot-rigging scandal blocked the former Republican candidate's presumed victory in November.
Ten Republicans filed by Friday's deadline to run for their party's nomination in the 9th Congressional District special election. They include the sponsor of a 2016 state law limiting LGBT rights, the anointed choice of last year's GOP candidate, a Fayetteville medical products sales manager, two suburban Charlotte real estate agents and a former Marine who served on the county board that includes Charlotte.
They have two months to raise money and campaign while Dan McCready, the Democrat who seemed to narrowly lose November's election before it was voided, can meet with supporters and donors without a primary contest. He raised $487,000 at the end of 2018 while the result was in doubt.
With no other contests serving as a weather vane of political opinion, the election should draw tons of money and visits from presidential candidates looking for a platform, Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper said.
"I think this is going to be a nationally prominent story," said Cooper, predicting the interest level could match the big-money 2017 Georgia race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. "I think we'll have probably relatively low voter turnout ... but the media environment is so nationalized now that I think we're all looking for signs."
The district that has been in GOP hands since 1963 and President Donald Trump won it by 12 percentage points in 2016. Republican Mark Harris seemed in November to have won by 905 votes out of almost 278,000 cast. But that was before investigators found a political operative working for Harris collected an unknown number of mail-in ballots, making them vulnerable to being changed or discarded.
The bi-partisan state elections board last month unanimously declared the election tainted and ordered another.
Harris isn't running again. The incumbent he beat in last year's primary, Robert Pittenger, also ruled out running in the district which stretches from suburban Charlotte to suburban Fayetteville along the South Carolina border.
If none of the Republicans win more than 30 percent of the votes in May, a GOP runoff primary would be Sept. 10 and the general election Nov. 5. If there is a clear Republican winner, he or she would meet McCready and candidates of the Green and Libertarian parties on Sept. 10.
Harris urged his supporters to back Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing, who like the former Baptist pastor is staunchly anti-abortion. Rushing, 47, said his conviction comes in part from the fact that his mother gave birth to him despite being just 16.
The firing range owner and licensed gun seller said he's had grass-roots contact with thousands of people across the district who have taken his hunter safety and concealed-carry courses.
The best-known Republican candidate is probably state Sen. Dan Bishop of Charlotte, the architect of one of the most controversial laws in recent state history. House Bill 2 repealed a Charlotte ordinance expanding LGBT rights and prevented similar anti-discrimination rules anywhere else in the state. A 2017 Associated Press analysis found the law will cost the state more than $3.76 billion over several years.
The law was partly repealed, but local governments can't regulate private employment or public accommodations until late next year.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo cited that partial repeal when barring swimmers attending state universities from lodging in North Carolina during a collegiate championship next week in Greensboro. Cuomo said banning nonessential state-funded travel to North Carolina remains because the state continues discrimination against the LGBT community.
Bishop said his HB2 advocacy proved he'll tell voters where he stands despite pushback.
"I think the people of North Carolina, they put that controversy behind them and they're ready to move on," Bishop said after filing as a candidate Thursday. "It did the state no good to have that controversy, but it's an exhausted issue. And as I said, everyone understands where I stand. But we're on to a new campaign and new issues."
A late entry was Chris Anglin, who had been a registered Democrat until shortly before he entered last year's race for a state Supreme Court seat as a Republican. He split GOP votes with the Republican incumbent and helped a Democrat get elected.
Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the NC Values Coalition, said her conservative lobbying organization hasn't decided who to endorse. Still, she said social conservatives are motivated to vote because their "votes were thrown out," even though it's unclear whether there were enough tainted ballots to swing the race last year.
Last year's narrow race in a district that favors Republicans suggests GOP voters need to rally behind a candidate who can appeal equally in the district's suburbs and rural hamlets, Republican strategist Patrick Sebastian said.
"Most of the Republicans in this race are fairly conservative but I don't think all of them can win against McCready, who's going to have a mountain of money behind him," Sebastian said. "So we have to nominate somebody that has a little bit of crossover appeal (to Democrats) but also can stop McCready from taking soft Republican voters. He clearly did that in 2018."
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