This article was originally published by NC Policy Watch on Dec. 6, 2021

by Kirk Ross

Filing season for the 2022 elections opened in true North Carolina style Monday, with the state Court of Appeals suspending filing for newly-drawn congressional and legislative districts under court challenge.

That didn’t prevent filing from opening at noon as scheduled for North Carolina’s closely watched U.S. Senate race, just as a shakeup in both the Republican and Democratic primaries has narrowed the field and the focus of the contests.

Late last month Democrat Erica Smith announced she would file for the Second Congressional District following the announcement by U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield that he wouldn’t seek re-election after 17 years in office.

Meanwhile, former GOP congressman Mark Walker hasn’t made anything official — as of noon Monday — but there are plenty of indications that his move from the U.S. Senate race to the newly drawn Seventh Congressional House District is a done deal.

Politico reported that former President Donald Trump brokered a deal during weekend meetings at Mar-a-Lago with Walker and others. Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd early in the race.

For the past month, Walker has been urged to drop his Senate bid and shift to NC-7. Madison Cawthorn, who has been among those telling Walker to get out of the race, also attended Mar-a-Lago this weekend; Politico’s Natalie Allison tweeted out a state map that Cawthorn reportedly distributed, showing Trump-backed congressional candidates.

Although the Republican and Democratic Senate primaries have been shaping up as competitive head-to-head contests, both Smith and Walker were poised to draw enough votes to influence in the outcomes.

The field is still crowded in both contests, but with the potential spoilers out of the way, the Democratic primary turns on whether state Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, can translate the energy of his campaign into enough votes to overcome former State Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who has raised more money than any candidate on either side and locked up key endorsements early, including Smith and a number of Jackson’s current colleagues in the state Senate. If elected, she would be the first Black person from North Carolina to serve in the U.S. Senate.

For now, the two Democrats haven’t gone at each other directly. The same can’t be said in the Republican primary, where there’s already a non-stop ruckus between former Gov. Pat McCrory, who is trying to rally his gubernatorial coalition or something like it, and Budd, who has put the Trump endorsement front and center in his messaging and held a fundraiser in Mar-a-Lago last month.

Western Carolina University political science professor  Chris Cooper said Trump’s endorsement made the difference for people trying to decide between Budd and Walker — two congressmen who are roughly the same age with almost identical voting records.

“Trump’s endorsement of Budd was really what lit the fire in his campaign,” Cooper said in a recent interview.

Work gets underway at the SBOE candidate filing center at the State Fairgrounds. Photo: Kirk Ross

The primary here shares a common theme with GOP races around the country, he said. “I think it’s indicative of these broader struggles the Republican Party is having right now with how much they want to be defined by Trump.”

McCrory, who is up in what little polling has been available on the campaign, has to walk a fine line, Cooper said, similar to Glenn Youngkin’s approach in his successful run for governor of Virginia.

“He’s not getting the Trump endorsement, obviously, but he’s not criticizing Trump, he said. “I think he’s trying to walk that line, be the pro-business, fiscally-conservative candidate who won’t turn off the Trump voters even if he doesn’t turn them on.”

Without this voting bloc, he said, McCrory can’t win in the fall.

The Democratic primary is another test of direction, Cooper said, with Beasley, the more well-known, establishment-backed candidate and Jackson, who just completed a 14-stop college tour, doing his best to whip up support among young voters.

“She’s the favorite, but it’s not by a lot” he said. “I wouldn’t underestimate Jackson’s ability to generate turnout.”

Record pace

This year’s Senate contest has all the ingredients necessary to break the record spending levels in 2020, when an estimated $271 million poured into the Cal Cunningham-Thom Tillis race.

An open race in a roughly 50-50 state could drive spending beyond that on its own, but it’s even more likely with control of the Senate in the balance.

Competitive primaries will add to the money spent as well, and turnout could set new records for a non-presidential cycle.

For all the focus on the intra-party tensions, it’s the state’s unaffiliated voters who could make the difference in both primaries. Voters registered unaffiliated now outnumber registered Republicans in North Carolina and represent the majority of voters 45 years old and under.

Photo: Kirk Ross

Cooper said turnout from cycle to cycle has varied, but unaffiliated voters are often attracted to competitive races.

“So we know that in [2008] and in 2020, unaffiliated voters chose the Democratic primary and all the years in between they chose the Republican primary. Maybe that’s a sign of ideological leanings, but I think that’s also a sign of which had the more interesting primary,” Cooper said. So far, the role of the unaffiliated vote is uncertain, he said. “I don’t know what they choose. I don’t know what the more interesting primary is in 2022 and so I think that is the big turnout question.”

At Monday’s opening of a new filing center set up at the  Exposition Center at the State Fairgrounds, State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said given the state’s history, elections officials arrived with contingencies already planned.

They got word of the appeals court order at 11:37 a.m., but even with several races on hold, an hour later the sprawling filing center, moved from NCSBE offices to allow for more social distancing, was doing a brisk business in judicial candidates.

Whatever the outcome of the court cases, Brinson Bell said she expects the U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket to drive heavy turnout and plans to use systems put in place during the the record participation in 2020 to make sure elections officials are ready.

As more voters use vote by mail and early voting, making sure there is an adequate supply of all the types of ballots has been an important strategy.

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