Dorian Further Dampens Enthusiasm For NC Congressional Race

Sep 6, 2019

Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Hurricane Dorian has created new challenges in the final days of campaigning for a North Carolina congressional seat that was already getting scant attention.

As the hurricane scraped the coastline on its way toward the state, at least one campaign manager pulled signs for his candidate out of the ground on Thursday before they could blow away — or worse, become dangerous airborne missiles.

Residents of the eastern 3rd Congressional District were likely thinking about potential threats to life and property — not stump speeches or political preferences — as Dorian moved northeast along the Atlantic coast, bringing high winds, heavy rains and storm surge.

"If there's any kind of significant damage ... the minds of people are going to be on something besides voting," said Doug Raymond, the campaign manager for candidate Greg Murphy, as he yanked posts from the soggy earth in Carteret County.

Murphy, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Allen Thomas are the top candidates in Tuesday's election. Each is vying to be chosen as the successor to the late Rep. Walter Jones Jr., who died in February on his 76th birthday after 24 years in Congress. Libertarian and Constitution Party candidates are also running.

Early in-person voting in the district was supposed to continue through Friday, but the district's 17 counties had shuttered voting sites or planned to do so Friday. Murphy and Thomas decided to postpone campaigning until the storm is gone.

"There are more important things going on," Thomas campaign manager Chris Hardee said.

With no promise that state election officials would extend early voting into the weekend, the campaigns were shifting their get-out-the-vote message to election day. The storm's aftermath added a lot of uncertainty about who will show up on Tuesday, Raymond said.

The campaign faced obstacles even before Dorian came along: The candidates have struggled to attract attention in the shadow of the closely contested — and watched — 9th Congressional District in south-central North Carolina. The airwaves are buzzing with ads bought by the candidates and national allies who have spent millions on the election, a do-over of the contest last year that was nullified after evidence of absentee ballot tampering emerged.

In contrast, both super PAC and independent spending in the 3rd District general election have been close to zero, federal campaign records show.

Republicans from outside the state had already spent a lot of money in the GOP primary runoff that Murphy won July 9. And they may feel like it's not necessary to spend much more for a general election in a conservative district that President Donald Trump won by 24 percentage points in 2016. The 3rd District extends from the Virginia border and the Outer Banks to the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, and inland to Greenville.

"All races are structural, and in the 3rd the Republicans have a built-in advantage just based on historical vote performance," said Brad Crone, a longtime Democratic consultant in eastern North Carolina. "It's just such a high mountain to climb for him," Crone said of Thomas.

After the primary runoff, Murphy, a urologist and state legislator, appeared on stage briefly at a Trump rally in Greenville for his endorsement and declared that if elected, he would "be a congressman that has our president's back."

Murphy "supports President Trump for the same reasons I do," said J.C. Hardee, 71, a retired Marine from Jacksonville. Hardee, an independent, said he separates Trump's words from his policies.

"He says things that I would never say ... (but) I also think some people overreact to perceived slights," Hardee said.

At the rally, Trump offended some when he verbally attacked Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who is Muslim and a Somali refugee. In response, some supporters in the crowd began yelling, "Send her back!"

Thomas, a former Greenville mayor, wrote a letter to Trump criticizing him for his comments at the rally, especially for lacing his profanity with the name of God.  "There is no place, for using the Lord's name in vain, racial statements or attempts to feel great as the leader of the free world ... by belittling others," he wrote.

In a recent interview, Murphy said he didn't appreciate Trump's profanity and didn't hear the "Send her back!" chants from his seat inside the arena. He refrained from criticizing the crowd, however, saying its response "represents frustration with certain members of Congress who want to attack America."

Thomas has criticized Murphy for what he calls the candidate's blind loyalty to the president.

Joanne Santiago, 42, of Jacksonville, a registered Republican who resigned her local party leadership position this summer to support Thomas, said Murphy "needs to concentrate on eastern North Carolina and not so much backing Trump."

Murphy dismisses such criticism and has been highlighting his work as a surgeon, medical missionary and lawmaker. "I think I'm a proven commodity," he said.

Thomas has had to defend his brief time leading a state-run airport and industrial park after a critical state audit. He has been promoting the local jobs and investments he brought in through the park and as mayor.

Thomas' campaign fundraising has been competitive with Murphy's, and both are running local TV ads.