Primaries of ultimate importance
After the experience of 2012, Rowan County voters are not likely to sleep through another primary season.
In another column on this page, former state treasurer Tom Campbell predicts turnout in the May 6 primary will be very low. Many legislators face no real opposition to re-election.
But local races are lighting a fire under voters in some counties, like Rowan and Cabarrus. I doubt anywhere near the majority of voters will participate in the May 6 primary, but it will be much more than the scant turnout that changed the course of local government in 2012.
Some numbers are needed here. As of April 1, Rowan County has 91,583 voters. They break down like this:
• Republican: 37,247 or 40.6 percent
• Democrat: 30,750 or 33.6 percent
• Unaffiliated: 23,366 or 25.5 percent
• Libertarian: 220 or .2 percent
Rowan clearly has more Republicans than anything else, yet more than 58 percent are not registered Republican — they’re Democrat, unaffiliated or Libertarian.
In its heart of hearts, though, Rowan County glows red for Republican candidates. Republican presidential candidates usually get at least 60 percent of the local vote.
Rewind to 2012. Rowan County Republicans faced a slate of nine candidates running for two seats on the county commission. Two names came out on top in the May primary — Gus Andrews and Gene Miller — but they didn’t have quite enough votes to avoid a call for a second primary. So they found themselves in a July runoff with Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey.
While Andrews and Miller waited to see what the second primary would bring, commissioner Jim Sides went to work. Sides wasn’t up for election in 2012, but he knew the control of the board was at stake. Either he’d be in the minority going forward, or he’d be part of the ruling majority — maybe even chairman.
As I’ve said before, Barack Obama’s election machine has nothing on Jim Sides’ one-on-one, church-to-church push to get like-minded voters to the polls.
Though Andrews and Miller had led the first primary with 5,808 and 5,203 votes, respectively, Pierce and Caskey won the second primary with 2,843 and 2,746 votes. Turnout was miniscule.
Remember, Rowan County has more than 90,000 voters. It was summer. Lots of people felt they’d done their democratic duty in May and that the runoff was just a formality.
So, while many were politically snoozing, Pierce and Caskey won fair and square with roughly 350 more votes than Andrews and Miller. With all due respect to the Democrats who ran in the fall, Pierce’s and Caskey’s victory in the general election was a virtual done deal. After they were sworn in, they chose Sides as chairman.
This spring’s primary is even more important, if that’s possible. Three seats on the five-member commission are up for election, those held by Sides, Jon Barber and Chad Mitchell.
Sides is seeking re-election, something he has not won before. Mitchell is running for the state House instead, challenging fellow Republican Harry Warren for the 77th district seat. And Barber is not running.
The commission race gets curiouser and curiouser. Whoever wins the primary will face two Democrat challengers — former commissioner Leda Belk and attorney Rick Locklear — in the fall.
And there are now three people trying to get on the ballot as unaffiliated candidates — former commissioner Raymond Coltrain, unsuccessful 2012 candidate Gene Miller and a recent addition, Chris Cohen.
Meanwhile, the Republican side of the ticket is pretty interesting in itself. The slate consists of eight people, including Sides, and they’re well aware that the electorate casting ballots in their primary is a bit of a mishmash. Activists unhappy with commissioners’ recent actions, like buying Salisbury Mall, have been urging Democrats to switch their registration to unaffiliated so they can vote in the Republican primary. The goal is to help the GOP choose moderate nominees.
(How many have actually made the switch has not yet been calculated. The registration period ended Friday; we should have numbers soon.)
Those nominees will then run against the Democrats and the unaffiliated candidates who qualify for the ballot. Should be interesting.
So here’s where I make a pitch for Tuesday’s candidate forum. The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce, Catawba College and the Post are partnering on the event, set to start at 6 p.m. in Tom Smith Auditorium of Ketner Hall on the Catawba campus.
The first portion will feature Mitchell and Warren. After a break, the Republican candidates for county commissioner will take the stage.
Dr. Michael Bitzer will moderate.
And 91,583 voters should be paying attention, if you ask me. Not all of them can vote in the primary, but they all could be affected by the outcome.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.