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An Incumbent Vies For Re-election In The Year Of The Outsider

NC General Assembly
Jorge Valencia

With Super Tuesday in the books, presidential campaigns are  focusing on Florida, Ohio and North Carolina in advance of a March 15th Primary. That's when North Carolinians head to the polls to select party nominees for president, governor and the state legislature. In total, there are 340 General Assembly primary races on the ballot.

However, only a few of those contests are expected to be competitive.

The state legislative seat garnering the most attention is in House District 36. Nelson Dollar is a six-term Republican incumbent from that post. He's a lead budget writer in the House, one of the most powerful members of the chamber, and, in this year of the outsider, he's under attack, from a political newcomer.

A recent add calls for an ousting of Dollar.

"Conservatives are looking for change for a Dollar—State Representative Nelson Dollar, that is. Nelson Dollar has been criticized by leading conservative groups for supporting millions in wasteful spending, including his opposition to reform the fraud and waste ridden Medicaid program."

Mark Villee is trying to end Dollar's tenure. He's backed by the tea party and his candidacy embodies the anti-establishment narrative playing out across the country, and affirms deep divides within the Republican Party. The competition for House District 36 in suburban Wake County is one of the only General Assembly races featuring TV ads.

"Extremist lies, personal attacks, a smear campaign. Don't believe the lies folks. I'm Nelson Dollar- proven conservative, asking for your vote. My record: a 95 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union. Senator Tillis, Sheriff Harrison and Skip Stam have endorsed me because I cut taxes, eliminated waste and balanced our state budget. I'm fighting the Raleigh Liberals and winning," said Dollar in another recent TV spot.

Although Representative Dollar was first elected in 2004, he is also trying to position himself as someone who challenges the status quo.  

"I have a strong record of fighting—and winning—against the Democrat establishment in Raleigh. That's the establishment that Republicans have been fighting for a number of years," he said in an interview.

But some influential Republicans don't deem Dollar conservative enough. The effort to unseat him stems largely from a budget proposal last spring. Dollar was a lead architect of a spending plan that proposed about a six percent increase in spending. American's for Prosperity was quick to criticize the budget plan. Villee has continued the questioning of Dollar's fiscal philosophy.

"He really is the epitome of the establishment Republican; he's got a lot of special interest groups he engages with, like, the solar industry, labor unions, and he gets a lot of finance from them," contended Villee.

Another notable policy difference between them is the two billion dollar bond referendum on the primary ballot. Dollar supports the measure that would provide infrastructure funding to universities. Villee is opposed says it's a bond proposal lacking a detailed plan. 

Voters in this district are primarily upper middle class families, with many working for employers in the research Triangle, according to Joe Stewart.

"To some extent this is a very unique election cycle, just because of the relative level of anger and frustration among voters of both parties of all demographic segments," explained Stewart, the Executive Director of the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a non-profit non partisan organization that conducts political research in the state. About two thirds of the voters in House District 36 are Republican or unaffiliated. And, it's about 65-hundred people larger than in 2010 when the census was taken district lines were drawn.

"In addition to a suburban feel, it's also increasingly one of those types of districts where voters have less of a partisan orientation and more a focus on individual candidates and issues that matter to them in the context of a particular election," said Stewart.

He believes one of those topics is Interstate 540 - and proposals to complete the project. Villee has criticized the incumbent for not bringing about more progress on the beltline initiative.

"I think that 36 is by far the most interesting race in the state," said Chris Cooper, who teaches political science at Western Carolina.

"But I think at the same time. The bigger story to me is how few of these races are interesting. Over half of the primaries have no opposition.  So these are races where we can already call the general election winner before we're through the primary season. I think it's a bad sign for the health of North Carolina politics, frankly," Cooper explained."

Cooper, Stewart, and other experts blame the lack of competitive races on redistricting and migration patterns. Despite lopsided projected outcomes, the results of Super Tuesday are expected to influence voter turnout in two weeks. Lower turnout typically helps incumbents.  But in this cycle of political upheaval, attendance in the polls could be up.  In the end, Republicans are likely to keep a super majority in both chambers of the General Assembly; with, or without Nelson Dollar.


Jeff Tiberii is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Jeff joined WUNC in 2011. During his 20 years in public radio, he was Morning Edition Host at WFDD and WUNC’s Greensboro Bureau Chief and later, the Capitol Bureau Chief. Jeff has covered state and federal politics, produced the radio documentary “Right Turn,” launched a podcast, and was named North Carolina Radio Reporter of the Year four times.
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