House revolt nearly sinks primary bill

Published September 27, 2015

by Barry Smith, Carolina Journal, September 25, 2015.

The effort to move North Carolina’s consolidated primary to March 15, 2016, barely cleared the state House as 19 Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing the measure because of a change in campaign finance law tacked onto the bill at the 11th hour.

House and Senate leaders added a provision to the bill that allows caucus leaders from both the Republican and Democratic parties in the House and the Senate to set up separate campaign financing committees operating independently from their respective state party organizations.

The bill passed the House on a 52-49 vote after clearing the Senate on primarily a 30-13 party-line vote. It is now on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

The finance committee move has created an uproar among some Republicans. The Craven County Republican Party Executive Committee adopted a resolution urging the removal of state Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who handled the bill, from his post as a member of the Republican National Committee.

Richard West, a Republican precinct chairman from Haywood County, said he thinks the establishment in the party is afraid of grass-roots activists.

“The Republican Party is so scared that they are going to be taken over by the grass-roots that they’re trying to prevent that all costs,” West said. “The point is to knock out any threat that a bunch like us have to upset the apple cart — to run real conservatives and not fake conservatives.”

Lewis said he had heard rumors concerning the Craven County executive committee’s action, but had not been contacted by anyone from the party about it.

Lewis said that the finance provision has been talked about for “quite some time” and that legislative leaders decided to attach the provision to the primary legislation as a matter of expediency.

“To be candid, I don’t think it’s as controversial as a handful of people believe it is,” Lewis said. “I think a handful in the House perceived that somehow this was a vote of no confidence in our state party. That’s not what it was. That’s not what it was intended to be.”

Lewis added that the money raised by the leadership committees could not be used in primary races, as some opponents of the measure had suggested.

Lewis noted that another group of House Republicans was upset about the process of adding the fundraising provision to the primary legislation.

“To the latter point, they’re probably right,” Lewis said. “It seems the important always takes the back seat to the urgent.” Lewis said that the state’s budget and other bills have taken the priority during this legislative session. But the end of the session and an early October deadline by the national Republican committee to change the primary or lose delegates were nearing.

“The calendar just kind of slipped up on us,” Lewis said. He said often legislative races take a back seat to statewide and congressional races in the party, and also noted that there is a vacancy in the state Republican Party’s executive director and finance director’s office.

The state GOP executive committee plans to meet Saturday to select a new executive director.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, argued on the floor Thursday that the move feeds on the public perception that the “political class” is looking after itself.

“I’d like to do some things to try to win back public confidence,” Blust said.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, also argued against setting up the caucus campaign finance committees.

“You can build a dynasty by setting up these type of committees,” Michaux said.

The North Carolina Democratic Party experienced a split between “activist” and “establishment” factions after the 2012 election. Pittsboro Mayor Randy Voller, a progressive who was named state party chairman in February 2013, faced a host of challenges, including the June 2013 resignation of first vice chairwoman Nina Szolsberg-Landis over concerns about the party’s finances. Then-U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan also chose to run her re-election campaign through the Wake County Democratic Party rather than the state party apparatus. Hagan lost her bid last year to Republican Thom Tillis.

The consolidated primary law will include North Carolina’s presidential preference primary, primaries for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor, lieutenant governor, and other statewide, district and local offices. Also planned for the March 15, 2016, primary ballot is a referendum on $2 billion in statewide bonds.

The move to combine the presidential and general primaries was aimed at saving local elections boards and county commissioners money that would have been required had the state had separate primaries. Lawmakers say that the consolidated primary will save between $7 million and $10 million.

The change also means that neither the state’s Republican nor Democratic parties will lose delegates next summer's presidential nominating conventions. Had the state’s presidential preference primary fallen in February, it would have been operating outside of both national party rules.

The bill also sets up winner-take-all presidential primaries, meaning that the candidate receiving the most votes in their respective party contests will be awarded all delegates from the state. In previous presidential preferences primaries, delegates were awarded in proportion to the votes candidates received.

Chairs of the state’s political parties have until Dec. 16 to submit the names of presidential candidates to appear on the ballot in the presidential preference primary. The names must include candidates whose candidacy generally is recognized by the national and state media. The State Board of Elections will meet Jan. 5, 2016, to approve the presidential candidate list.

Filing for non-presidential candidates will begin at noon Dec. 1, 2015, and end at noon Dec. 21.

If a second primary — or runoff primary — is needed, it will be held May 3, 2016, provided none of the races are for U.S. Senate or U.S. House. If any of the runoff primaries are for U.S. Senate or U.S. House, the runoff will be held May 24, 2016.