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Some WNC locales reach 30 percent, but overall turnout low
Thom Tillis carried the day for Republican primary voters in Western North Carolina Tuesday, despite threats from grassroots challengers bent on forcing the candidate into a runoff election against GOP opponents seeking to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan this fall.
Hagan, who is up for re-election for the first time, coasted in the Democratic contest.
Tillis, who is speaker of the state House, netted 45.69 percent of ballots cast across the Tar Heel state, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections—making him the clear winner in a field of eight candidates. The speaker’s tally statewide was mostly aligned with voter counts compiled in the 18 counties that make up Western North Carolina.
Save for Buncombe, Haywood and Polk counties, Tillis scored the majority of votes from Republicans across the region. Majorities in the three counties to not back Tillis instead chose Dr. Greg Brannon, a tea party-affiliated obstetrician who had the support of groups including FreedomWorks, Tea Party Patriots and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah.
Brannon scored his highest Western North Carolina majority in Buncombe County, where 43 percent of voters in the GOP primary opted for the candidate. For nearly all other counties—including Avery, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga and Yancey—Tillis was the far-and-away winner, besting Brannon and Rev. Mark Harris, who placed third statewide.
In the days leading to the primary, polling indicated Tillis would have enough support to reach the 40-percent threshold required to avoid a runoff. The momentum was boosted by support lent to the candidate by pillars of the GOP establishment, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Rifle Association, National Right to Life, the American Crossroads super PAC backed by former White House strategist Karl Rove, and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
For most though, including Tillis, the outlook going into Election Day remained unclear.
In an Associated Press report filed Tuesday, Tillis expressed uncertainty about the results.
“I’m not the one who believes it’s certain,” Tillis said. “I believe it’s going to depend on turnout.”
Turnout across both Western North Carolina and the state at large was in line with previous primaries in non-presidential years. Despite the hype around a contested Senate primary with eight Republican candidates, registered voters across the state on the whole stayed home—with only 15.71 percent of North Carolinians voting Tuesday.
In the 2010 primary—the most recent to feature a U.S. Senate race—14 percent of registered voters across North Carolina cast ballots. In the previous primary to feature a Senate race, in 2008, 37 percent of voters went to the polls—a spike generated largely by a presidential race.
For a handful of smaller counties in Western North Carolina, including Clay, Graham and Madison, voter turnout exceeded 30 percent. But for most, the percentage of registered voters to participate in the primary election was lower—with the region’s most populous county, Buncombe, showing roughly 15 percent of voters making the effort to vote.
The overall primary turnout was to be expected, said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.
“In terms of turnout, non-presidential years seem to be about the same,” Cooper said. “The Republican Senate race was the marquee matchup, but there really wasn’t a marquee Democratic primary. If there had been a more quality challenger to Hagan, maybe there would have been more incentive for Democrats to show up, unless they had a competitive local race.”
Ken Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at Elon University and director of the Elon University Poll, offered a similar take.
“On the Democrat side, the race was just not going to draw people,” he said. “People have very busy lives, two jobs, kids that are in soccer, karate and ballet. They might vote in a primary if they think there is a contentious ballot measure, like Amendment 1, or a race where they think they can make a difference. But in most primaries, you only get voters who feel compelled to come out and voice their opinion.”
Another factor which may have played into turnout numbers across the region and state could have been North Carolina’s semi-open primary system.
For primary elections, registered voters may only vote on their party ballot, while independent or unaffiliated voters may choose the ballot of candidates offered by either party.
Although proponents of semi-open primaries champion the system’s ability to allow party members to select their own candidates themselves, others argue that open primaries would offer more freedom for voters to choose a candidate who aligned more closely with their personal ideals, and this spur higher numbers of voters to the polls on Election Day.
“Knowing what kind of primary you’re dealing with does affect how you read it,” Cooper said.
With less than six months left until the Nov. 4 general election, experts are expecting no let up in the war for advantage between Hagan and Tillis, which in effect started months ago.
With Republicans being six seats away from a Senate majority, the race in North Carolina will undoubtedly become ground zero for outside interest hoping to influence its outcome, along with millions of dollars funneled to organizations on behalf of candidates. According to a Politico report, Democrats are already circulating strategies highlighting lines of attack against Tillis.
The majority of attacks will come over airwaves.
“Perhaps the biggest strategy for the parties is, is there any airtime left that can be bought?” Fernandez said. “Obviously, North Carolina residents are going to be seeing lots of ads. Ads, ads and more ads. You’ll see them from Tillis attacking Hagan on Obamacare, and from Hagan attacking Tillis on his record, for essentially riding shotgun on legislation recently passed by the General Assembly that most Democrats would disapprove of.”
The attacks from Hagan may not be enough, with Tillis already having scored a higher majority in the primary than many predictors would have guessed. Since the primary results were counted, a narrative has shifted in reports to suggest that Republicans in both North Carolina and across the country may be more united in purpose than previously suggested.
The final tally for Tillis is not to be ignored, Cooper said.
“Obviously the biggest takeaway from the primary is seeing Tills come in well over 40 percent,” he said. “No matter what part of the state you live in, that’s an important statistic. It indicates that the Republican party is a lot more unified than people may have previously thought it was.”
Tillis and Hagan will face off Nov. 4.