Summing up the 2024 primary election

March 11, 2024

Summary:

  • Trump and the MAGA movement exerted full control over GOP politics
  • Every Republican state legislator running for higher office with credible opposition failed
  • The Trump/Robinson ticket bodes poorly for Republican candidates this fall

 

By Justin King, Senior Policy Fellow with Carolina Forward

The March 5th primary election will go down as one of the most transformative primary elections in recent NC politics. Though top-of-the-ticket races saw no major surprises, the margin of victory for both Donald Trump and Mark Robinson clearly drew significant coattails for far-right MAGA primary challengers downballot.

The Department of Public Instruction

In a night of several eye-catching races, the biggest upset came in the primary race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Republican incumbent, Catherine Truitt, had the endorsement of major legislative leaders, interest groups, and a significant fundraising advantage over far-right challenger Michelle Morrow. Morrow originally appeared on the political scene in 2022, when she ran for the Wake County school board. Morrow said she’d been inspired by Steve Bannon’s call for radical-right activists to run for their local school boards after she participated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Her campaign featured positions such as arming teachers with loaded handguns in classrooms. Morrow was rightfully repudiated by Wake voters by a large margin.

Yet the statewide MAGA primary electorate was unfazed. Undeterred by Morrow’s bizarre positions, they decided to oust a sitting, and reasonably popular, incumbent statewide elected official. No statewide elected incumbent in NC has been bounced in a primary election in the modern political era. To state the obvious, Morrow is manifestly unqualified for the job of overseeing public education in NC. The general election race between Morrow and Democratic candidate Mo Green will now rightfully receive significant media and voter attention. 

Legislators fall flat

The upsets kept rolling as MAGA insurgent candidate Luke Farley knocked off Republican State Rep. Jon Hardister in the race for Commissioner of Labor. Rep. Hardister has served six terms in the NC House, and despite having never held a job besides the one provided to him by his father, Hardister had the support of every establishment politician in Raleigh. This support proved to be no match against a first-time candidate with weak fundraising who proposed to “Make Elevators Great Again.” (Yes, seriously).

The state legislature itself was far from immune to the MAGA headwinds. Incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Crutchfield of Cabarrus County was defeated by far-right challenger Brian Echevarria. PACs and dark money groups connected with Senate Leader Phil Berger’s political machine spent big money to defend Crutchfield, but it proved to be no match for Echevarria’s grassroots support – especially after he received a significant boost from Lt. Governor Mark Robinson.

(The Raleigh rumor mill has been working overtime on this last bit. Mark Robinson’s endorsement against a sitting incumbent has triggered a significant establishment backlash to his gubernatorial candidacy among GOP legislative insiders and interest groups).

Back east in Onslow County, 10-term incumbent Republican Rep. George Cleveland was defeated by a 21-year-old East Carolina University student, Wyatt Gable. Cleveland has been a consistent conservative member during his tenure, voting in lockstep for every piece of right-wing legislation rammed through by the GOP majority. The outcome of this race appears to be driven by personality-driven, MAGA-aligned primary voters expressing their frustrations against establishment incumbents. 

The backlash begins

Incumbent defeats have triggered an immediate backlash from Republican-aligned interest groups that spent heavily to defeat primary challengers. The NC Chamber of Commerce released a statement decrying the outcome of the primary results as a threat to the business climate in NC. Unfortunately for deep-pocketed interest groups like the NC Chamber, this election outcome was years in the making – and they bear some direct responsibility. Republican special interests like the Chamber have encouraged aggressive partisan gerrymandering for over a decade, with the inevitable and widely predicted result of deeply partisan districts that expect more from their representatives than typical election year lip service. 

Speaking of maps, the newly drawn US House districts produced almost exactly the type of MAGA candidates one would expect given the low turnout and political climate. In the 8th district, crooked “pastor” Mark Harris defeated a sitting member of the state legislature, Republican Rep. John Bradford, and another well funded challenger to advance towards the general election. What Mark Harris was unable to accomplish through cheating in 2018 he has now won through gerrymandering in 2024. GOP groups out of Washington D.C. spent heavily against Harris, but failed because he had the support of Lt. Governor Mark Robinson. In other districts, far-right candidates such as Pat Harrigan and Laurie Buckout advanced to the November elections. Kelly Daughtry and Addison McDowell face runoff elections, which they are widely expected to win. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, their general elections are mostly a mere formality. All of these candidates spent significant money tying themselves directly to Donald Trump and the MAGA brand.

If there was any doubt remaining about the strength of Donald Trump’s grip on the GOP voter base in NC, and indeed the Republican Party itself, Tuesday’s election results were a definitive answer. The establishment Republican political class and interest groups in Raleigh no longer have much purchase with base GOP voters. Those voters demand far-right, personality-driven candidates that have proven toxic in other swing states around the country. The future of the Republican brand in NC is dark, divisive, and downright dangerous for our state. 

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