Low voter turnout could be on the horizon for the congressional primary on Tuesday, June 7. “The turnout will likely be very low, because most voters won’t be paying much attention,” predicts political science professor Chris Kypriotis of Warren Wilson College. “If they had occurred in March, voters would have been drawn for other races, particularly the presidential primaries.”
A Feb. 5 federal court ruling in a lawsuit filed by voters in Mecklenburg and Durham counties led to all the state’s congressional districts being redrawn, which couldn’t be completed in time for the March 15 general primary.
This is the third time in 12 years that North Carolina has held a second primary, all in presidential election years. In 2008, 63,014 Buncombe County voters cast ballots in the general primary; a Democratic runoff a month later drew a scant 1,395 voters. In 2012, the general primary saw 70,446 Buncombe County voters participate; just 5,005 took part in a second primary in July.
As of May 21, Buncombe County had 189,397 registered voters, according to the state Board of Elections. In March, a record-breaking 78,611 voters turned out in Buncombe County, but any votes cast for congressional candidates weren’t counted. Thus, a small number of local voters may end up deciding who appears on the November ballot for districts 10 and 11. “A voter has to really care about these congressional primaries to show up at the polls on June 7, and I don’t think many do,” Kypriotis observes.
Trena Parker, Buncombe County’s director of election services, says she’s “hoping for doubledigits,” meaning a turnout in the thousands. Recruiting volunteers for a second primary can be difficult, she notes, but all polling locations will be open and staffed by four or five poll workers. “In smaller elections, we communicate to workers and those involved that every election is just as important as any other,” says Parker, adding, “All processes, procedures, rules and regulations apply.”
Low turnout could benefit incumbents
Four Republicans are running in the 10th Congressional District, including six-term incumbent Patrick McHenry. His challengers are Jeff Gregory, Albert Wiley Jr. and Jeffrey Baker. The lone Democrat, Andy Millard, will automatically advance to the November election.
In the 11th District, two-term Republican incumbent Mark Meadows faces no challengers. He’ll oppose the winner of the Democratic primary, either Rick Bryson or Tom Hill. (For more information, see the candidate coverage elsewhere in this issue.)
“Low turnout,” says Kypriotis, “favors those with a strong organization and an energized group of supporters.” In the 10th District, “McHenry, being the incumbent, has that strong organization, if not the energized supporters, and it seems his opponents have neither. I don’t think low turnout favors either of the 11th District Democrats over each other.”
Turnout aside, continues Kypriotis, “McHenry is somewhat vulnerable to a strong outsider candidate in the primary, given his ties to the House Republican leadership that isn’t too popular among Republican voters, but that candidate hasn’t materialized.”
It remains to be seen whether one of McHenry’s three challengers can upend the incumbent, but if McHenry advances, “His general election prospects are good, given the 10th District is so heavily Republican,” says Kypriotis.
In both districts, he notes, the Democratic candidates are demographically challenged. “The 11th District is solidly Republican, and the national Democratic Party will not spend much of its resources on the race.” And whichever Democrat wins the 10th District primary, “Neither has much of a chance” of upending Meadows, Kypriotis predicts.
Still, the national mood often has an impact in general elections. “I think there is an anti-incumbent mood, though it’s probably more accurate to call it an anti-establishment mood, and therefore any candidate seen as part of establishment politics could face some challenges,” Kypriotis explains. “McHenry is the most clearly part of the political establishment in Washington, and Meadows most clearly not. But in the end, when given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat, the voters in the 10th and 11th districts will almost certainly choose the Republican, no matter how establishment they are.”
Looking ahead to November, Kypriotis says, “A Trump-Clinton contest will likely be a low turnout election, since both candidates are relatively unpopular.”
And though low turnout tends to favor incumbents, he notes, anti-Trump sentiment might undercut other Republican candidates’ home-court advantage.
“There is a chance, though I can’t really quantify it, that supporting Trump will become the driving issue in many other down-ballot races, and candidate support for Trump becomes somewhat of a litmus test for voters. How that plays out in these two races is unknowable, though my best guess is that both McHenry and Meadows would still find a way to win.”
But in the bigger picture, Kypriotis predicts, “Trump will end up losing badly to Clinton, and the scale of that loss will cost the Republican Party Senate and House seats, but these two House seats won’t be among those lost.”