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Republican Senate Candidates In The Home Stretch For Primary Next Week

Denise Cross Photography

Primary election day is this upcoming Tuesday, May 6, so today we discussed it with our political science professor, Michael Bitzer of Catawba College who also writes for our political blog the Party Line.

Kevin: A few weeks ago, a lot of people were saying it looked like the U.S. Senate Republican primary would result in a runoff election. But some recent polls show that Thom Tillis is above that 40 percent mark he needs to avoid a runoff. What’s going on?

Bitzer: I think this primary battle for the U.S. Senate on the Republican side turned from the tortoise primary to the hare primary. About two weeks ago we had nearly a third of likely Republican voters say that they were undecided. And to have that big of a chunk of that electorate with Tillis having twenty to twenty five percent at that time – I think most of us looked at that and said it is going to be hard for him to overcome that. Last week we saw the spurt. Basically people deciding on which candidate, and a lot of them broke for Thom Tillis. And if these polls hold true, it looks like he should be able to get through with that forty percent plus one vote threshold to avoid a summer runoff.

Kevin:He had been casting himself as a “practical conservative,” do you think there’s been a change?

Bitzer: Well, I certainly think that it is a direct appeal to two critical groups within the Republican base. And if we are talking about folks who are the activists, who are the die-hards, he needed to appeal to both social evangelicals, which we would consider Mark Harris to be the right candidate for that attraction. But Speaker Tillis is certainly trying to peel off that support by invoking the issue of abortion and the pro-life stance that he has. And then also the base loves the Second Amendment. And that’s another critical kind of litmus test for candidates to really kind of appeal to the base there again. So I think it was a wise calculation. For folks that are the activists that are going to be showing up, he had to make that entry into those groups. He certainly has been perceived as kind of a moderate to conservative individual within the Republican Party. I think he’s just trying to boost his credentials within those two particular key areas.  

Kevin:Is Tillis in trouble if he fails to avoid a runoff?

Bitzer: I don’t think so. I looked back to 2012, and for those major races that went to a summer runoff – there were twelve major ones. Nine of those who came in first in May won the eventual nomination. So if you are doing the betting average, the likelihood is whoever ends up coming in first on Tuesday, if they go to the July summer runoff, certainly has the advantage. But you are talking about a tremendous dip in voter turnout. And the true die-hards show up in those summer primaries, so really you don’t want to run the risk of having something come up and be disruptive in a nomination battle.

Kevin:Of course, early voting is already underway. Can you tell anything from those numbers in a primary election?

Bitzer: Right now we’ve got about two percent voter turnout. Among Republicans it’s overwhelmingly white and an older electorate, and much more male. On the Democratic side its fifty-six percent white, forty-one percent black. The average age for the voters is sixty-two. So this is really something that we are traditionally seeing in these low voter turnouts. Statewide probably about fifteen percent voter turnout. In Mecklenburg it may be below ten percent voter turnout.

Michael Bitzer is a political science professor at Catawba College, and writes for WFAE’s political blog The Party Line.