Nasty Runoff Set in N.C.

Posted July 21, 2004 at 6:56pm

North Carolina voters were cantankerous on Tuesday, rejecting the House bid of the son of a popular former Senator, rebuffing Rep. Cass Ballenger’s (R) attempts to anoint his successor, and setting up what promises to be a very nasty Republican runoff in the Winston-Salem area.

Voters also selected the newest Member of the 108th Congress — Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D), who won a special election to replace the recently departed Rep. Frank Ballance (D) [see p. 17 for more details] in the 1st district.

The Tar Heel State promises to be ground zero in the battle for control of the Senate this year. Businessman Erskine Bowles was unopposed for the Democratic nomination on Tuesday, and Rep. Richard Burr easily won the GOP primary.

Most of the drama Tuesday was in Republican House primaries — even though few House races are expected to be competitive between the parties in November — and two are headed to runoffs on Aug. 17.

The most notable was the wild eight-candidate primary to replace Burr in the Winston-Salem-based 5th district, where the top two finishers fell well short of the 40 percent they needed to avert a runoff.

“That race was really involved,” said Alvin Williams, executive director of BAMPAC, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee dedicated to electing black Republicans. “It got to the point where any of the contenders could pull it out.”

In a surprise, BAMPAC’s candidate, Winston-Salem City Councilman Vernon Robinson finished atop the GOP heap, with 24 percent of the vote. State Sen. Virginia Foxx was a close second, with 22 percent.

Businessman Ed Broyhill, son of former North Carolina Sen. Jim Broyhill (R) who had spent $1.4 million of his own money, finished just 1 percentage point behind Foxx, with several wealthy businessmen finishing farther down in the pack.

The primary had already been marred by an intense level of name-calling, and the Robinson and Foxx camps wasted little time Wednesday firing away at one another.

Robinson, who has proudly labeled himself a black version of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms (R) — Helms had endorsed Broyhill in the primary — called Foxx a closet liberal.

“It appears that Virginia Foxx has never met a liberal cause that she didn’t embrace,” said Kay Daly, Robinson’s media consultant.

Daly accused Foxx of supporting the failed Equal Rights Amendment, tax increases and racial quotas, and said she took money from “the homosexual lobby” — an apparent reference to a small contribution that Foxx received from a gay rights group during a legislative campaign a decade ago.

“This is clearly going to be a race with very definitive lines between conservative ideology and liberal ideology,” Daly said.

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Foxx, agreed that Robinson and Foxx are worlds apart — but said the differences are stylistic, not ideological.

“There will be a stark contrast between the two, and I think voters will appreciate our positive message,” said Auth, who called Foxx a solid, mainstream conservative. “He brands her ‘liberal Virginia Foxx’ and hopes that people believe him.”

Robinson was aggressive throughout the campaign, unapologetically staking out the far-right position on most issues and questioning the conservative bona fides of those opponents who disagreed with him. Former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who had endorsed Robinson at the outset of the campaign, was so displeased with the candidate’s tactics that he rescinded the endorsement several weeks ago.

Many political observers said Wednesday that Robinson’s take-no-prisoners approach could cost him in the runoff, with several of the primary also-rans expected to endorse Foxx.

“I can’t imagine that any of the more mainstream votes are going to go to him,” said one national Republican strategist.

Auth agreed.

“They already have a lot of animosity toward Vernon for going after their candidates,” she said.

But Daly was dismissive of the significance of endorsements from the losers, noting that several wealthy candidates were unable to help themselves in the primary.

Robinson, who has used direct mail to good effect, has shown himself to be a talented fundraiser. Foxx was fifth of the eight GOP primary contenders on the fundraising front.

Even if the runoff gets nasty, national Republican leaders are unlikely to intervene and the winner will be the heavy favorite in November against the Democratic nominee, Surry County Commissioner Jim Harrell Jr.

Meanwhile, another GOP runoff is on tap in the 10th district, where Ballenger is retiring after nine terms.

Ballenger had endorsed businessman Sandy Lyons in the primary, introducing Lyons as “your next Congressman” in TV ads. But Lyons finished a weak third.

Instead, the runoff will be between Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman, who took 35 percent of the primary vote, and state Rep. Patrick McHenry, who finished with 26 percent. The winner will be the heavy favorite in November.

In one other notable Republican House primary, former House staffer Virginia Johnson won the right to square off against freshman Rep. Brad Miller (D) in the 13th district.