Politics

Seventeen Republicans Walk into a Primary...

(No, not that one)

Clockwise from top, left: Ted Budd, Julia Howard, Andrew Brock, Matt McCall, Vernon Robinson, and Kay Daly are some of the GOP candidates vying for the open seat in North Carolina's 13th District.

Seventeen Republicans in the same primary? Voters know how that race turned out .    

But the GOP presidential race wasn't the only primary this year to feature 17 candidates.  

Seventeen Republicans are jockeying to be the next member of Congress from North Carolina's 13th District. The primary is June 7.  

This primary may have just as many candidates, but so far, it's featured none of the fireworks that exploded in this year's GOP presidential primary.  

That's because the contest has drawn little attention.  

"This race just doesn't exist," said Republican consultant Bob Kish, who's working for state Rep. Andrew Brock, one of the few candidates in the new 13th District to have raised any real money.   

Whoever wins the GOP primary is likely to be the next member of Congress from the Tar Heel State in this safe Republican seat. But with so many candidates in a race that's expected to set a record for low turnout, the margin of victory required to win will likely also set a new low.    

North Carolina pushed back its congressional primaries to June after court-mandated redistricting scrambled the lines of the state's 13 districts shortly before the state's March 15 primaries .  

The general assembly approved a new map at the same time and did away with the state's runoff provision. Only a plurality is required to win now.  

Even compared to other GOP congressional primaries in North Carolina, the 13th District race is flying under the radar. The 2nd District, for example, features a hotly contested member-on-member primary that includes the 13th District's current representative, GOP Rep. George Holding.  

[ The Rise and (Probable) Fall of Renee Ellmers ]  

Holding decided to run in the 2nd District after the new lines shifted the 13th District across the state. It's now an open-seat race.  

Unlike the crowded presidential field, no one among the 17 Republicans running in the 13th District started with much of an advantage.   

Presidential candidates tend to rise and fall with earned media. At the congressional level, it's different. Paid media is the main currency, Kish said. But it's hard for congressional candidates to raise money, let alone get their names out with such a crowded field.  

That's changed slightly in the past couple of weeks since the anti-tax group, Club for Growth , stepped into the race.  

"If the club wasn’t involved, no one would know they're voting in three weeks," Kish said. [ Club for Growth Endorses Renee Ellmers Challenger ]  

The club's PAC backed gun range owner Ted Budd earlier this month, touting him as a "pro-growth outsider." It has so far spent $285,000 on television ads  on his behalf.  

Budd's is the only face that's graced the airwaves, which goes a long way toward distinguishing him from the pack.    

"They may just go ahead and buy this thing," Kish said of the club. "If someone else can get up on TV, then it becomes a competitive race," he said. He is trying to get his candidate, Brock, on the air. Budd's appeal, at least to the club, is that he's never run for office before. He's a political newcomer in the year of the outsider.   

But nothing is guaranteed in a race as crowded as this. And there are at least a handful of other candidates who could secure the narrow plurality required to win on June 7.  

[ Supreme Court: Redraw North Carolina Congressional Districts ]  

Four state representatives are running who all likely start with higher name recognition than the rest of the crowd. Brock has been considered a front-runner because his legislative district overlaps most closely with the new congressional district.   

State Rep. Julia Howard, a real estate agent who was instrumental in crafting North Carolina's controversial HB 2 bathroom bill, has the backing of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich . She's also the only woman who's thought to be competitive because she's held elected office and has a base of support.  

"Ted’s challenge is he has no constituency," said a GOP operative from North Carolina. "Julia is a state rep. People have been voting for her for 20 years. It's hard to peel those people away," he said. [ North Carolina Sues Over Transgender Bathroom Law ]  

The size of the field stems, in part, from the stand-alone primary date. Had the congressional primaries remained on the same day as the federal and state primaries, state legislators would have had to pick a primary — state or federal — to run in.  

Republican operatives also put Iredell County Register of Deeds Matt McCall and Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning in the top tier of candidates.   

And then there are the characters.  

Vernon Robinson, who calls himself "the black Jesse Helms," is a familiar, maybe even feared, name in Tar Heel Republican politics. He's a perennial congressional candidate and most recently served as political director of Draft Ben Carson .  

His rhetoric is inflammatory. He's criticized "homosexuals," "lesbians and feminists" for "attacking everything sacred."  

"The aliens are here. But they didn't come in a space ship. They came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions," the narrator says in Robinson's infamous 2006 "Twilight Zone" ad  from a previous run for Congress.   

Given that he's run before, and that firebrand politics has resonated this year, Robinson shouldn't be discounted, said one GOP operative from the state.  

Robinson's former political consultant, Kay Daly, is also in the race. A former congressional staffer, she started off the year challenging Rep. Renee Ellmers in the old 2nd District. Her website declares she's the only candidate in the 13th District who "is less PC than Trump.” The rest of the GOP field includes multiple businessmen, attorneys, Marine veterans, an engineer, a lactation consultant, a former CIA officer and a land preservationist.   

The winner will face one of five Democrats in November.  

Contact Pathé at  simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter  @sfpathe. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.