Candidate quality comes into focus as NC Republicans reflect on missed opportunities in Congress
Republican businesswoman Sandy Smith and GOP political newcomer Bo Hines narrowly lost competitive congressional races. The results are prompting some to consider what could have been done differently.Posted — Updated
In an election year when conservative candidates had sizable wins statewide and important victories in legislative and judicial races, the party didn’t perform as well as it had hoped at the congressional level.
By Tuesday night, North Carolina voters elected seven Democrats and seven Republicans.
In and around the Triangle, the GOP lost in North Carolina’s 1st and 13th Congressional Districts — outcomes that several political onlookers see as a reflection of candidate quality and a lower threshold required for candidates to win their primaries.
Candidates today no longer need to capture 40% of the vote to win their party’s nomination outright. Instead, they can win with 30%. The reduced barrier bolstered Republican businesswoman Sandy Smith and GOP political newcomer Bo Hines — two hardline conservatives seen as more vulnerable in their 1st and 13th district general elections due to their positions on social issues and staunch support of former President Donald Trump.
“What is certainly the case in both districts is that Republicans are choosing in their primary nomination to select the candidates who are far more extreme and out of the mainstream in districts that are highly competitive and in which moderate candidates would feel better,” said Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University public policy professor and former Democratic operative.
“That has as much to do with the preferences of the Republican base as it does with the way in which the candidates are selected,” he said.
Smith faces electability concerns
If money was any indicator, nowhere was concern within the GOP more visible than an eastern North Carolina contest for the seat of retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield. Smith narrowly crossed the 30% mark to win her eight-person primary race in May by less than 5 percentage points.
But attack ads didn’t let voters forget the allegations made by two of Smith’s ex-husbands and her then-teenage daughter. Smith also faced criticism for attending Trump’s speech in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. Smith says she didn’t march to the Capitol or participate in the violence that took place that day.
Republican onlookers see a need for the party to improve its reputation nationally.
Brent Woodcox, a GOP activist and senior policy counsel to Republican state Senate leader Phil Berger, wrote on Twitter after the election that the party should move away from a perception of extremism.
“It’s impossible to look at Tuesday’s results and not conclude that the GOP as currently constituted is simply incapable of taking advantage of conditions to form a wave,” Woodcox wrote. “The national brand of the GOP is unserious chaos agents. Until that changes, election outcomes won’t.”
“Republicans were certainly targeting a wide variety of seats,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “If they had pumped some money into that 1st [Congressional District race], maybe they would have gotten a little bit closer. But I think the underlying fundamentals of what we've seen so far kind of played against Republican-heavy Trumpist candidates.”
“I’m certain had we had more funding from outside groups, we would have won,” Smith wrote on Twitter the day after her defeat.
Money aside, there were signs of voter dissatisfaction with Smith. In Wilson County, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd led Beasley by more than 3 percentage points, as of Tuesday. But voters in the county favored Davis over Smith by half a percentage point.
Doug Heye, a North Carolina native and longtime Republican strategist, said Smith’s loss reflects frustration among independent-minded voters with more ideologically extreme candidates.
“These are problems and present problems for independent voters who aren’t happy with the direction of the country but see so often Republicans nominating cartoon candidates,” Heye said. “And they don’t want any part of that. That’s been a consistent challenge for the party.”
On election night, Smith was seemingly nowhere to be found, as party leaders and reporters didn’t know her whereabouts. Smith hasn’t responded to WRAL requests for comment.
Michael Whatley, the state GOP’s chairman, defended Smith and said he was proud of all the Republicans who ran for U.S. House. “We had a great slate of candidates across the state of North Carolina,” Whatley said, adding that his party plans to review the impact the lack of pro-Smith messaging had on the results.
Hines falls short in NC toss-up
Hines is a former N.C. State football player who left after a season to pursue a degree at Yale University, a move designed to advance his political ambitions. He then returned to North Carolina and got a degree from the Wake Forest University School of Law. Hines spent much of 2021 campaigning in western North Carolina, but settled on the 13th district after redrawn congressional lines left him with no other viable spot to run in.
The newly drawn district includes all of Johnston County and parts of Wake, Wayne and Harnett counties.
Hines was propped up by an endorsement from Trump and more than $1.7 million spent in the primary from Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C., political group that works to elect hardline Republican candidates. The group later spent an additional $1 million elevating Hines in the general election.
Hines’ forceful positions on divisive social issues, including a 10-year moratorium on immigration and how K-12 public school students are taught, resonated with Trump’s base of supporters in the primary but didn’t necessarily endear himself to the more moderate voters in the district he’d need in order to win in November.
“Their extreme positions doom them, particularly among independent voters,” Bitzer said of Hines and other staunch conservatives.
In conservative-heavy Johnston County, Hines got 46,021 votes as of Tuesday—just 37 fewer than the person at the top of his party’s ticket, U.S. Senate candidate Ted Budd. Meanwhile, Nickel got 28,785, 1,046 more than his party’s top candidate—Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley.
In the general election, Hines spoke increasingly about the economy, citing his work at his father’s hard good licensing company, Wild Sports. But the Republican struggled to deliver a clear message on where he stood on abortion.
At times, he suggested a desire for a blanket abortion ban, though he remained largely consistent about supporting an exception when a mother’s life is at stake. Toward the tail end of his campaign, Hines drew fire from Democratic groups after saying he’d want exceptions for rape and incest on a case-by-case basis.
“When you get out there and you’re taking these extreme positions, you could almost describe him as a Madison Cawthorn on steroids,” said Floyd McKissick, Jr., first vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Asked by WRAL last month who should determine whether an abortion exemption should be granted, Hines replied, “I think we can take a look at several different options to set up a review process. I think it comes down to an individual community level. That's nothing the federal government should have a role in.”
While Smith ran in a Democratic-leaning district, Hines campaigned in the state’s lone toss-up, though it leaned slightly conservative based on past voting trends.
Hines’ campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday night, Hines conceded to Nickel but also hinted at ambitions to run again.
Pat Ryan, a Republican public relations consultant who worked for one of Hines’ seven GOP primary opponents, sees less concern of candidate quality with Hines than Smith. He praised Hines for making few mistakes on the campaign trail.
Preliminary election results showed Hines held his own in conservative strongholds. Hines singled out Johnston County in a concession speech on Tuesday, thanking voters in the area for rallying behind his campaign.
Hines got about 5,000 more votes in Johnston County than Republican congressional candidates in 2018. Nickel was able to counteract that with a strong showing in southern Wake County.
“The Democrats did really well in their urban strongholds,” Ryan said.
But the gains from North Carolina’s Democratic congressional candidates could be short-lived. That’s because Republicans swept six statewide judicial races, including wins by Republicans Trey Allen and Richard Dietz for the state Supreme Court.
During their campaigns, Allen and Dietz didn’t comment on cases that could go before the court. Even so, they both signaled stronger deference to the will of state lawmakers than their Democratic opponents. The state high court will soon have a 5-2 conservative majority. Barring unforeseen deaths or resignations, Republicans will control the bench through at least 2028.
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