When none of the Republican candidates for Congress garnered 40 percent of the votes during the May 8 primary, the election got more complicated.
Rather than narrowing the long list of candidates to two — one Republican and one Democrat — the primary left Republicans with two candidates who will participate in a second primary on June 26. That delay could possibly give the Democratic nominee, Hayden Rogers, a head start going into the November general election as the two remaining Republican candidates, Vance Patterson and Mark Meadows, continue to duke it out for their party’s nomination for another six weeks.
“Does it make it more difficult? Yes. Does it make it impossible? No,” Meadows said.
The field was already overflowing with candidates from both sides of the aisle looking to snatch up the seat of departing Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. Eight Republicans lined up to fight for the position, while three distinct Democratic candidates jumped into the ring for a comparatively easy battle amongst themselves.
With so many Republican candidates, it was difficult for voters to distinguish most of them from Adam. So, when May 8 finally rolled around, voters in the Republican primary split their ballots too many ways.
Meadows received nearly 38 percent of the votes — just 2 percentage points shy of the need 40 percent for the nomination. Meanwhile, Patterson, who garnered 23.6 percent of the votes, will have a second chance in a runoff.
Meadows, 52 of Cashiers, is the candidate who drew the short end of the stick, said Chris Cooper, an associate professor of political science at Western Carolina University.
“It’s a good day for Hayden. It’s a good day for Patterson. It’s not so good a day for Meadows,” Cooper said. “It has complicated Meadows’ life.”
A second primary means a divide in campaign funding and volunteers and no one for the Republican Party as a whole to gather their support behind.
“You are splitting everything a campaign needs between two candidates,” Cooper said.
Although a runoff is not the ideal situation for Meadows, the May 8 primary showed that he has a broad base of support. Meadows won the majority of votes in all but four counties in the district.
“It doesn’t mean he will win, but he is clearly the frontrunner going forward,” Cooper said.
Meadows will have to make a strategic decision — to run against Patterson only until June or position his message as if he has secured the nomination, Cooper said.
Although he hit a snag, Meadows said his strategy for the election will not change, and he will continue to focus on appealing to all voters, not just one group.
“Instead of talking about other candidates, we have talked about our message,” Meadows said. “We are going to go ahead with our message — less government, less spending.”
As for Patterson, Cooper said his best option is to focus on the runoff race.
“Patterson needs to aim to beat Meadows, and Meadows has a tough choice to make,” Cooper said.
And, that is exactly what Patterson said he plans to do.
“A lot of the work’s been done,” said Patterson, who started the race with little to no name recognition. “I just need to make sure I can differentiate myself from Mark (Meadows).”
In most cases, second place is a disappointment, but for Patterson, runner up in the Republican congressional primary is exactly what he was aiming for.
“We are really where we hoped to be,” Patterson said. “We were hoping to make the runoff.”
Patterson said he thinks that he can close the gap in support during the next six weeks.
“Why would I not continue on? We’ve got good momentum,” Patterson said. “We made the playoffs, and when your team makes it into the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Party is in a difficult position since it cannot officially support anyone until a nominee is chosen. The Democratic Party, however, can start putting its political weight and funding behind Hayden Rogers, a Blue Dog Democrat and former chief of staff to Shuler.
“It puts us at a tremendous disadvantage,” said Ralph Slaughter, chair of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It would make it much easier if my job was supporting one person as opposed to two people.”
The cost of a runoff
Close races come at a cost — a steep cost for cash-strapped counties that can ill afford to stage a special “do-over” election when no clear victor emerges the first time around.
When there’s a crowded field, as there was in this year’s Republican primary contest for Congress, if none of the candidates secure at least 40 percent of the votes cast, the runner-up has the right to call for a special run-off election.
And that means county taxpayers must foot the bill. How much?
“More than $25,000 and probably close to $30,000,” said Robert Inman, director of Haywood County’s Board of Elections. “We are looking at a major expense.”
Jackson County’s board budgeted $25,000 to cover the cost of any runoffs this year, but it is unclear if it will need to find more.
“It’s just really hard to tell,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County BOE. “I base (the amount) on past years.”
Haywood County hasn’t budgeted any additional money specifically for such cases.
“We just kind of have to pay those bills as they come along,” Inman said. “Haywood County has not budgeted any (funds) at all, not one penny.”
Instead, the money is a mixture of any leftover elections funding and county contingency funds.
The Macon County’s Board of Elections estimated its cost to be between $20,000 and $25,000.
Cost depends on a number of variables: How many runoff elections there are? How many machines and employees will be required to man the polls? How many early voting sites must it operate? Are there runoffs for both Democratic and Republican races, which would up the number of ballots needed?
“You are basically turning around and doing another election,” said Joan Weeks, director of the Swain County Board of Elections.
The Swain County board will have to return once again with its hands out to the Board of Commissioners to help pay for any runoffs. The election board approached the commissioners earlier this year asking for money to pay for an early voting site in Cherokee. Now, it will go back for more funding. The total cost of an election in Swain County is between $6,000 and $12,000.
Primaries typically report low turnouts anyway — ranging from 12 to 30 percent during the past decade.
For runoffs, or secondary primaries, voter turnout numbers are far lower. Runoff turnouts are anywhere from 2 percent to 12 percent of registered voters, Lovedahl estimated.
It is nearly impossible to replicate the emotion that first drove voters to the polls for the primary or that will drive them to the polls come November.
“You can’t change the emotion that they had the first time,” Inman said.
“The cost leaves some wondering if the restrictions are too tight. I wonder if there is not perhaps a better way.” said Ralph Slaughter, chair of the Jackson County Republican Party.