RALEIGH — Four pairs of Republican incumbents face off Tuesday in the North Carolina General Assembly primaries, their confrontations the result of redistricting in rural areas that have lagged other parts of the state in population growth.
But the most interesting legislative contest could involve Democrats and a name not even on the ballot: Gov. Roy Cooper.
The second-term Democratic governor took the unusual step of endorsing a primary challenger to Democratic Sen. Kirk deViere of Fayetteville, who at times has sided with Republicans, particularly on the state budget and legislation easing public school restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.
DeViere has been accused of getting too comfortable with the GOP during 2021 budget negotiations, when Cooper's longtime effort to expand Medicaid got blocked. A final spending plan that largely favored Republican priorities passed in November with bipartisan support.
In his endorsement of former Fayetteville City Council member Val Applewhite, Cooper wrote that he needed someone in the state capital of Raleigh who “isn’t afraid to stand up to Right Wing Republicans as we work to build a state where everyone has an equal chance to prosper.”
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“This race is just too important to sit out,” Cooper says in a radio ad for Applewhite's campaign. Former District Court Judge Ed Donaldson is also running in the primary.
Other Democrats have criticized Cooper’s interference and have praised deViere for bringing state dollars to Fayetteville. DeViere said in March that he’s confident Cumberland County voters "will choose the voice that best represents their interests – not the interests of partisan Raleigh politicians.”
Cooper’s chief outside consultant, who for years had provided campaign services to deViere, now works with Applewhite, according to campaign finance reports.
While past election results in the 19th Senate District show the Democratic primary winner will have the general election advantage, Cooper is taking a risk by turning away from deViere, who has won two close races for the seat against Republican Wesley Meredith in 2018 and 2020. The Republican majority could become veto-proof in the Senate if the GOP wins two additional seats in November.
Meredith, himself a former four-term senator, is running in the GOP primary against first-time candidate Dennis Britt.
Among other Republican primaries, Sens. Deanna Ballard of Watauga County and Ralph Hise of Mitchell County are competing for one seat in the mountainous 47th District. Republicans said population changes and county-grouping rules in redistricting made it largely impossible to keep the pair from living in the same district.
Hise, in his sixth term, is one of the Senate's three top budget writers and co-chair of the Senate redistricting committee. Ballard, who joined the Senate in 2016, is a co-chair of both the Senate education and education appropriations committees.
Another “double-bunking” is happening in northeastern North Carolina, where Sens. Norm Sanderson of Pamlico County and Bill Steinburg of Chowan County are seeking the same 1st District seat. Sanderson is a co-chairman of Senate judiciary and agriculture committees, while Steinburg leads a panel seeking to improve the safety of prison workers. Both are former House members.
In the House, seven-term Rep. Jamie Boles of Moore County and first-term Rep. Ben Moss of Richmond County are running in the Sandhills-area 52nd District. And Reps. Jake Johnson of Polk County and David Rogers of Rutherford County are competing for the 113th District seat within four foothills and mountain counties. Rogers joined the House in 2016, with Johnson arriving in 2019.
In all four races, the winner faces no Democratic opposition in November.
Current legislators running for seats in the other legislative chamber have primaries.
Democratic Rep. Raymond Smith of Wayne County, who was drawn into the same district with House Majority Leader John Bell, instead is running in a Senate primary against incumbent Sen. Toby Fitch of Wilson County. GOP Rep. Lee Zachary of Yadkin County, drawn into a House seat with 17-term Rep. Julia Howard, decided to run in an open Senate seat. Other candidates in Zachary's Republican primary include Shirley Randleman, a former House and Senate member.
Current Democratic Sen. Sarah Crawford of Wake County is running in a House primary, while Democratic Reps. Graig Meyer of Orange County and Kandie Smith of Pitt County are in Senate primaries.
Other former legislators competing in Tuesday's primaries include Eddie Gallimore of Davidson County, who is running for the Senate. For House seats, there's Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg County, Elmer Floyd of Cumberland County and Stephen Ross of Alamance County.