Can anyone make sense of a 26-person Congressional race?
If serving in the U.S. Congress these days is a thankless job almost certain to invite a healthy dose of public disdain, tell that to the 26 people who signed up to run a shortened race to complete the term of Republican Walter Jones, who was the state’s Third District Congressman until his death on Feb. 10.
When the March 8 filing period ended, 17 Republicans, six Democrats, two Libertarians and one member of North Carolina’s new Constitution Party had entered a race that has a primary election on April 30, just 53 days after the filing deadline. The general election is slated for July 9, creating a four-month campaign. But if, as seems quite possible, a second primary has to be held on that date, the general election will be moved to Sept. 10. Then, of course, the winner would have to run again next year to retain that seat.
In order to avoid a second primary this year, one candidate would need to win at least 30% of the vote in the first primary, no simple feat given the size of the Republican field in particular. Should a second primary be called, only the top two vote getters in the initial primary would be on that ballot.
Needless to say, the unwieldy size of that field has been the focus of much of the attention on the race.
“NC-03 — If I had a dime for every person who ever filed for Congress…” wrote Brant Clifton, on his sharp-elbowed conservative site, the Daily Haymaker, “I’d be $2.60 richer!”
When the Sentinel asked some well-known North Carolina pollsters if they could effectively sample public opinion in a race like this, they made it clear the challenges were daunting.
“I’m not really expecting us to do any polling,” said Andy Jackson, an Elections Policy Fellow at the Civitas Institute. He cited the expense of such a poll and mentioned another problem. “You can’t read off seventeen names in a primary poll,” when administering the survey to someone on the phone, he noted. “Logistically, it’s bad.”
In an email to the Sentinel, Tom Jensen, the director at Public Policy Polling, wrote that, “Usually when a field is this large, if we have to poll it, we will try to figure out who the 9 most serious candidates are or something like that and just poll on those because otherwise respondents will get exhausted being asked about so many candidates.”
And as Jensen notes, there’s a Catch-22 problem when it comes to trying to winnow down the field to a group of so-called serious candidates: “It can of course be hard to figure out who the serious candidates are that need to be included in a poll without the benefit of a poll!”
And, while it may be difficult to pick a frontrunner, there is a clear consensus on what party is favored to win this one — even after a 2018 election cycle that saw the Democrats pick up 40 U.S. House seats.
In 2018, Jones won re-election to his seat without any Democratic opposition and in his two previous re-election campaigns — in 2016 and 2014 — he captured about 67% of the final vote against his Democratic rivals. In fact, Jones faced stiffer challenges in recent primary contests than he did in the general election races.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball political handicapping site, told the Sentinel that, “We rate the special general election for NC-3 as Safe Republican, at least for now. Donald Trump won the district by 24 points, which is generally outside the range in which Democrats can compete.”
Andy Jackson of Civitas echoed those sentiments, noting that the Third Congressional District “is the second-most Republican district in the state.”
Even so, both analysts hedge their bets a little, in part because of the potential unpredictability created by such a large group of candidates competing on the GOP side.
“If the Republicans manage to tear each other apart [during the primary fight], it could be interesting,” observed Jackson. Although when asked whether the candidates would even have time to tear each other apart during such a shortened primary reason, Jackson responded that, “it would take some creativity on their part.”
For his part, Kondik added that, if the Republicans ended up “nominat[ing] a poor candidate, and the Democrats a strong one, it’s possible that there could be a little bit of intrigue in the general election. The district that Conor Lamb (D) won in a Western Pennsylvania special election last year voted for Trump by about 20 points, so it wasn’t dramatically more Republican than this one.”