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Turnout steady, slow for Tuesday primaries

North Carolinians are headed to the polls Tuesday to vote in primaries that are bucking the state's normal trend of uncontested campaigns and feature a tight race among Democrats running for the U.S. Senate.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolinians turned out in slow but steady numbers Tuesday to vote in primaries that buck the state's normal trend of uncontested campaigns and feature a tight race among Democrats running for the U.S. Senate.

"This is the time for voters to select: Who do I want in that particular party and that particular contest to be on the ballot in November?" Wake County Board of Elections director Cherie Poucher said.

On Tuesday afternoon, State Board of Elections Executive Diretcor Gary Bartlett projected turnout to be at or below 2006 levels, when only 12 percent of voters cast a primary ballot. Unlike Tuesday primary, that election didn't feature a U.S. Senate race.

"We're open for business," Bartlett said, hoping that more voters would turn out before polls close at 7:30 p.m.

Early voting was extremely high in Wake County, Poucher said, so she's hoping for a good overall turnout.

More than 7,000 Wake County people voted early, compared to 700 in 2006, the most recent off-year election without a presidential or gubernatorial race.

About 170,000 voters cast ballots in early voting statewide, Bartlett said.

Front running Democratic Senatorial candidates Cal Cunningham, Ken Lewis and Elaine Marshall cast their ballots early Tuesday.

In an April 26 poll by WRAL News, Marshall, North Carolina's secretary of state, drew 23 percent support; Cunningham, a former state senator, had 19 percent; and Lewis, a Durham lawyer, had 10 percent. The three other Democrats fighting to challenge Republican Sen. Richard Burr in November polled in the single digits. Thirty-four percent of voters were undecided.

Burr was polling 59 percent support, and none of his three opponents had more than 6 percent. A quarter of voters were undecided.

To avoid a runoff, a candidate must garner at least 40 percent of the vote in a primary.

Get profiles of all Senate candidates, and hear from them in their own words.

There are 81 contested House and Senate primaries, a nearly 60 percent jump compared to the 51 recorded in both 2006 and 2008. The GOP has contributed the most to the increase with 27 contested House races and 20 in the Senate. Two years ago, there were only 22 contested Republican primaries.

The number of contested Democratic legislative primaries rose slightly, to 34 from 29 in 2008.

The increase in contested GOP candidates appears to be an outgrowth in voter unhappiness about Washington that has brought a record number of primary candidates to congressional races this year and forged the tea party movement.

"I think I've got just a good a chance as any," said first-time candidate and high school teacher Lauren Raper, of Spencer, 27, who is fighting with Harry Warren for the right to challenge Democratic Rep. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan. "Sometimes you need to stretch your neck and get out of your comfort zone."

The increase in contested Democratic primaries is likely the result of eight Democratic senators either deciding not to run for re-election or resigning late last year. For example, five Democrats are seeking the seat held by Sen. Larry Shaw, D-Cumberland, who isn't running.

Third-term Rep. Winkie Wilkins, D-Person, faces two Durham County challengers, including retired DMV employee Fred Foster Jr.

Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, appointed last year to fill the seat of former House Speaker Dan Blue, also has two challengers, and first-term Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, has gotten a tough fight from former Knightdale Mayor Jeanne Bonds.

Former Rep. Mary McAllister is challenging Rep. Elmer Floyd, D-Cumberland, who beat her two years ago. Rep. Edith Warren, D-Pitt, is being challenged by former Greenville city council member Mildred Council.

In the Senate, former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan has mounted a challenge to Sen. Harris Blake, R-Moore. Morgan lost his House seat in the 2006 primary. 

Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is again in a three-way primary. Recently appointed Sen. Michael Walters, D-Robeson, is being challenged by Benjamin Clark, who lost to Walters' predecessor David Weinstein in 2006 and 2008.

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Dan Bowens, Reporter
John Cox, Photographer
Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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