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Primary Takes Place Tuesday In NC's 3rd Congressional District

At an early voting site in Pitt County, voters were greeted with signs from some of the 17 GOP candidates seeking the nomination.
Jeff Tiberii

Early primary voting concluded Friday in the special election for North Carolina’s Third Congressional seat, made vacant when longtime U.S. House Rep. Walter Jones died in February. More than two dozen candidates are vying to serve the district, which sprawls across much of the coastal plains region, in the upcoming Tuesday primary.

Generally to get from one end of a Congressional District to the other, all you need is a car. However that’s not the case in North Carolina’s Third, where navigating from Topsail to Moyock, requires a boat. The Third is the state’s largest U.S. House district, covering nearly eight thousand square miles. It has voting precincts in 17 of the state’s 100 counties, and it’s separated by rivers and sounds.

Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
At nearly 8,000 square miles, the Third Congressional District is the largest  in the state. It also includes the Pamlico, Albermarle and Currituck Sounds.

Issues, What Issues?

Major economic drivers in this region include fishing, farming, healthcare, and the military. There is a varied swath of issues in this special election. Although some voters say those aren’t getting enough attention.

“When they start saying, ya know, ‘I’m going to be there for Trump’s agenda,' nothing against any of that, but I want what’s good for North Carolina – and you’re just not seeing that,” said Harold Gray, a resident of Beaufort County, who voted early.

Gray, who spent 34 years in the Coast Guard and Army National Guard, is a registered Republican who supported Greg Murphy, one of 17 Republicans seeking the nomination, and among three candidates who has experience in the state House.

“It was a crapshoot, and so I looked at it and he was discussing North Carolina things. And to be honest with you, I don’t know anything about the border – nothing," said Gray on Murphy's campaign.

Murphy is considered a tenuous frontrunner in this race. He hails from Pitt County, and as the only doctor currently in the state legislature has sought a leading conservative role on curbing the opioid epidemic, and expanding Medicaid.

Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
Raynor James finds shade outside of the Craven County Board of Elections earlier this month. She supports Michael Speciale, a member of the state House, in a crowded GOP primary field.

A Craven Conservative

The district doesn’t include any major cities. Population centers include parts of Greenville, as well as Kinston, Jacksonville, and New Bern – the largest city in Craven County. Wearing a tan visor, brown open-toed shoes and an enthusiastic smile, Raynor James is touting her candidate of choice, Michael Speciale, outside of the Board of Elections. Speciale is also a current member of the North Carolina House, and one of, if not the most conservative, in the primary field. Supported by Tea Party groups. James supports him for what she calls principled stands, occasionally against the wishes of his party leadership.

“The three who have records in the North Carolina House have a leg-up because they’ve got a record to point to,” James said. “I think a lot of people have had an experience that is similar to mine and that is, I’ve listened to people, believed them, voted for them. They get in office and then all of a sudden they change character. When you’ve seen a voting record that is not nearly so likely to happen. So if you study the voting records of the three who have them, a clear picture emerges if you really look at it.”

But how many people are really going to do that? No public polling is available for this primary. And political observers anticipate that at best turnout will reach the teens.

In addition to Murphy and Speciale, Phil Shepard rounds out the state representatives in the field. And there are plenty of others. Currituck County Commissioners Paul Beaumont and Mike Payment. Lenoir County Commissioner Eric Rouse. There is a farmer, pediatrician Joan Perry, veteran Phil Law who twice ran for this seat and lost, a library technician, and the former Vice Chair of the State Republican Party.

30% + 1

“We’re essentially saying six or seven people at least have a chance of making it into the run-off,” remarked Tom Eamon, political science professor at East Carolina University. In order to advance directly to the general election, Tuesday’s primary winner needs 30% of the vote. Like most people following this contest, Eamon expects a primary run-off, which would take place in July, and likely have an even more abysmal turnout. Under that scenario, he says dollars become more important.

The road ends at several points in North Carolina's Third Congressional District. A state ferry is one option when traversing from one end of the district to the other.
Credit Jeff Tiberii / WUNC
The road ends at several points in North Carolina's Third Congressional District. A state ferry is one option when traversing from one end of the district to the other.

“$100,000 would not make a bit of difference in some places, but in this particular area, with low turnout, I think money could make a significant difference in the race.”

With that in mind, remember the name Celeste Cairns. Three years ago a conservative organization – The Club For Growth – endorsed Ted Budd, a political unknown in an open Congressional race outside of Greensboro. Thanks in no small part to half a million dollars from that organization, Budd won, and remains in the U.S. House today. As for Cairns, a former CPA who is described on her website as 100 percent unapologetically pro-life, the group backed her last week.

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