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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Let’s take a close look at cannon-fodder candidates in North Carolina elections

Vote here sign outside stadium
David Boraks
A voting sign from the 2022 midterm elections, when long-shot Republicans challenged some sure-shot Democrats in Mecklenburg County.

This story originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Inside Politics quiz:

What do these seven people have in common — David Tondreau, Jerry Munden, Russell Rowe, Kalle Thompson, Steve Mauney, Kyle Kirby, Richard Rivette?

Know the answer? Didn’t think so.

They are all Republicans from Mecklenburg County who ran as long-shot candidates for overwhelmingly Democratic state House districts in 2020.

They all lost.

And they lost big. If you add up all the votes in their seven races, the GOP candidates got only 28% of the combined vote.

But did their presence on the ballot help Donald Trump win the state? Or help Mark Robinson become lieutenant governor?

This issue of Inside Politics will explore the impact of what could be called cannon-fodder candidates, people with almost no chance to win, but who are enlisted to boost their party overall.

In 2024, it’s North Carolina Democrats who are ceding no ground, running candidates in 118 of 120 state House races and all 50 state Senate races. The Democratic Party’s new chair, Anderson Clayton, made it a priority to run candidates in as many races as possible. Her frantic efforts to fill the lineup card were captured last month by this social media post:

And while N.C. Democrats were fielding candidates in almost every race, Republicans took a pass in many contests for 2024, running only 42 candidates out of 50 state Senate races and 95 candidates out of 120 state House races.

The case in favor of filling out the ballot

Democrat political consultant Thomas Mills was once one of those cannon-fodder candidates, running in 2016 for Congress in the heavily Republican 8th District. He lost to Republican Richard Hudson by nearly 18 percentage points.

Mills thinks he helped the Democratic Party that year (Roy Cooper narrowly defeated Pat McCrory for governor), in part because he believes he forced the GOP to spend money defending that seat, instead of funneling it elsewhere.

Thomas Mills
Democrat political consultant Thomas Mills.

“If you work at it, you can raise some money,” he said. “I told people I don’t have a prayer in hell but I still raised $400,000.”

Mills said that Republicans have historically tried to field candidates in as many races as possible, and he said the party’s inability to do that for 2024 is a sign of a lack of enthusiasm.

He added that you never know when there is a wave election, carrying marginal candidates to victory.

“In 1994, Republican candidates got washed into office,” he said. “The party didn’t know who some of them were.”

Mills and others point to another benefit: A candidate can help top-ballot races by contacting infrequent voters and encouraging them to go to the polls.

Western Carolina political science professor Chris Cooper said by text: “Every contact increases the odds of a person turning out. So, more people doing the contacting helps increase turnout among Democratic partisans.”

The flip side to those arguments is that many long-shot candidates are only raising $2,000 or $3,000. With no money, it’s very hard to contact infrequent voters.

Cooper said the benefit all depends on whether there is a voter contact.: “If so, a win,” he said. “If not…well…”

I would also argue there are two changes that have made the fill-out-the-ballot strategy harder to execute.

One is that local media has contracted so much that no one is covering these races.

Another is that the electorate is so polarized now that it’s unlikely to be a wave big enough to wash in a candidate in a district that favors the other party by 20 percentage points or more.

The GOP’s view

Republican strategist Jonathan Felt, who worked for Ted Budd’s Senate campaign, waves off the impact of long-shot candidates.

“There’s little to no discernible impact,” he said. “Most folks who run for these seats are bad candidates. They can’t raise money and won’t have message discipline.”

But he said: “If you can find a unicorn candidate — one with a bit of creativity, message discipline — there’s potential to have an impact. But finding a candidate like that is a time-consuming exercise.”

He added: “A lot of planning and money go into most viral moments these days. So even if you have a moment, you don’t have the money to make sure folks see it.”

Republican Congressman Dan Bishop in 2022 won reelection by nearly 40 percentage points against Democrat Scott Huffman.

Bishop said they did one candidate forum in Midland, and they both appeared on WBT radio on successive days. There was little or no other media coverage.

Bishop said that, in general, “it’s rare to see a really high-quality candidate in a long-shot race for obvious races.”

He said if there was a strong candidate, they might “drain resources from the party that dominates. Maybe.”

A pretty picture on an empty storefront?

Perhaps the benefit to filling out the ballot is not so much to bring out new voters, but to keep existing ones from feeling disillusioned.

A fair number of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though it wasn’t. A fair number of Democrats believe their losses are due to gerrymandering, even when they run on maps that are relatively fair, such as the 2022 state House map.

That distrust may be heightened when a voter isn’t given the chance to vote for their party in a state House or Senate or congressional map. Perhaps they won’t vote next time.

Think of these races like empty stores in a mall. Running a candidate is like painting a nice mural on the plywood covering up the storefront. There’s still a vacancy, but it makes everything look less dire.

That may be the biggest benefit candidates like Democrat Kate Barr can bring. She’s running a doomed state Senate campaign against Republican incumbent Vickie Sawyer in Iredell County and part of north Mecklenburg.

Barr told WSOC-TV that her slogan is “clear eyes, full heart, can’t win.”

She added: “It is such a lock that I think it might be the biggest upset in history if I won. But we are going to make some noise and have a little fun and hold our representatives accountable in the process.”

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.