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Wealthy candidates could have the best shot at North Carolina's 5 open House seats

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In North Carolina, Republican candidates for Congress are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to buy TV ads ahead of Tuesday's primary. Colin Campbell with member station WUNC explains why wealthy candidates could have the best shot at filling five open house seats.

COLIN CAMPBELL, BYLINE: North Carolinians like to joke that their congressional lines are good for one election only thanks to legal wrangling over partisan redistricting. This year's example - 10 of the state's 14 congressional districts heavily favor Republicans. That's thanks to new maps drawn by the GOP-held legislature. Five of those Republican-friendly districts have no incumbent. Voters are hearing a lot from the 34 different Republicans running across the five seats.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KELLY DAUGHTRY: I spent my career fighting for families, farmers and small businesses.

FRED VON CANON: I'm Fred Von Canon, and I approved this message.

JOSH MCCONKEY: Let's elect an outsider who will stand with President Trump. I'm Josh McConkey.

CAMPBELL: Many of those candidates have so far spent at least $50,000 of their own money. That's a total of more than $6 million. Political newcomer Fred Von Canon alludes to his finances in a TV ad that suggests money won't influence him in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

VON CANON: I won't take a salary as your congressman, so you can be sure I won't bow to lobbyists, liberals or even other Republicans.

CAMPBELL: The rise of self-funders like Von Canon is somewhat of a shift for the state, which has often seen candidates rise from the state House to congressional office. State Representative Erin Pare was one of the candidates following that trajectory. She's a mom and small-business owner who represents Raleigh's suburbs in the state House.

ERIN PARE: Frankly, we would have had to spend our entire life savings on this race. And, to me, that's not a smart thing to do when you have kids at home, and it's not something I really wanted to do.

CAMPBELL: Pare dropped out of the race for the state's 13th Congressional district last November. She would have been the only candidate in the race who's held elected office before. A total of 14 Republicans are running in the district that wraps around the Raleigh-Durham area like a red, crescent moon. Four of them are spending at least $200,000 from their own personal fortunes. Voters here have been deluged with ads promoting the candidates. Many of them feature a similar message...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The border...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: While politicians talk, Brad Knott acts.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #1: If you want to secure our border, restore our economy and protect our kids, I'm your candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #2: It's time we secure our border and protect our families.

UNIDENTIFIED CANDIDATE #3: 'Cause to me, securing our southern border - it's personal.

CAMPBELL: The crowded field of candidates has few differences on policy issues like immigration and the economy. Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University, says voters are likely making their decision based on other factors.

CHRIS COOPER: You're voting on style. You're voting on rhetoric. You're voting on how well they give you those messages.

CAMPBELL: Cooper adds, there's a lot of uncertainty that comes with electing someone who has no legislative record.

COOPER: I think there is a good bit of unpredictability in who's going to win and, frankly, how they're going to act once they end up in Congress. We know the positions they take. They all take roughly the same positions. But how effective they are, I think, remains to be seen.

CAMPBELL: Pare agrees.

PARE: You just get to learn about and understand where the difficulties are - what you want to fix up there just because it became a problem for you down at the state level. That's the experience that I think is valuable for a state legislator to take up to D.C. So I think that there is value there.

CAMPBELL: But this year's short election timeline may place more value on money and candidates who can chip in their own cash on Day 1. The new maps were released in late October. That gave candidates little time to persuade individual donors to help their campaigns. One person voters in the 13th district won't be considering is their current representative. Democrat Wiley Nickel decided not to run for reelection after his district was redrawn. He's now pushing for redistricting reform.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Campbell in Raleigh, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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