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For Voters In NC's 13th Congressional District, A Tough Choice Between 22 Candidates

The North Carolina Memorial Day Parade in Thomasville
Jorge Valencia
The 2016 North Carolina Memorial Day Parade in Thomasville

When a federal court struck down part of North Carolina’s congressional maps earlier this year saying they were illegal gerrymanders, state lawmakers created a new district that drew immediate attention from dozens of political hopefuls.

The 13th Congressional District, which stretches through mostly rural swaths between Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Salisbury, was unique among North Carolina’s 13 districts because it had no incumbent running for re-election. So within two weeks, 22 candidates registered to run for the Republican and Democratic nominations to the district.

For an idea of how voters might choose their new  U.S. representative, we visited Thomasville, a city in the heart of the district. It is the home of the North Carolina Memorial Day Parade, a salute to veterans and the families of military men and women -- and to politicians looking to meet them.

Bruce Davis, of Welcome, and his friend Darrell Freedle, of Lexington, both Vietnam-era veterans, watched as bands marched past them, and some politicians rode by in muscle cars. Freedle said he believed officials wanted to give thanks to families of fallen service men and women, but also to pursue votes. Freedle doesn’t mind, he said.

"It’s good for them to expose themselves to the public in order to see who you wanna vote for," Freedle said.

In fact, Davis had not decided his pick for congress, though he does know what he wants from a candidate: an outsider who won’t make a career out of politics.

At least a half dozen candidates visited the parade and ceremony, just a fraction of the total candidates for the seat. The candidates include some first-time contenders who have never held public office, and five members of the North Carolina General Assembly. Seventeen are Republicans and five are Democrats.

The race likely drew strong candidate interest because there is no incumbent, and it is typically very difficult to unseat an incumbent with strong name recognition, explained John Dinan, a political science professor at nearby Wake Forest University. And it likely drew strong interest among Republicans because lawmakers drew the district to favor the Republican nominee.

But perhaps the biggest reason voters in this primary have so many choices, is that there’s no runoff, so nobody needs to get 40 percent of the vote. In other words, a candidate could win with only a few thousand votes.

"In that situation, a lot of people say, 'Well, it’d be tough for me to get over the 40 percent threshold, but I could see myself getting to 12 or 15 percentage points'," Dinan said. "That’s a particularly interesting feature of this particular primary."

So how are voters deciding, then? It’s not so much the issues, though voters here favor social and fiscal conservatism, as it is simply finding a name they have heard of before.

"A significant goal you’re trying to achieve is just getting your name recognition boosted," Dinan explained. "That is the number one name of the game."

Rosie Sanders, a lifelong Thomasville resident and wife of a Vietnam veteran, watched the parade from the end of the route. She said she has voted in every election since she turned 18, and planned to vote in this race.

"I haven’t thought about who I’m going to vote for," she said. "I don’t know who all is running, but I’m going to vote."

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