Early voting concludes Saturday February 29th ahead of the March 3rd primary election in North Carolina. In Western North Carolina, voters will begin the process of choosing a new member of Congress. The 11th Congressional District has new boundaries this year, ensuring all of the westernmost portion of the state is in the same district. In the Republican primary in the 11th, having no incumbent brought out one of the largest primary fields in the country.
Mark Meadows announced on the morning of December 19th he was not running for a fifth term to represent the 11th. Just over 24 hours remained before the candidate filing deadline, and the roads to Raleigh from Western North Carolina were soon full of declaring candidates. In the span of a day, 12 Republicans filed their candidacies for the GOP primary, though one – Matthew Burril – has since dropped out.
That leaves 11 for the 11th. Maggie Valley businesswoman Lynda Bennett was the first in, announcing her candidacy just a few hours after Meadows announced his retirement. The timing sparked charges that she had a heads up on Meadows decision, something which has intensified now that she’s received his endorsement. Bennett denies those claims. If elected, she says she’ll join the hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, which Meadows once chaired. “I know President Trump is counting on Western North Carolina to send him another fighter, a fighter like me," Bennett said at a candidate forum in BPR's studios February 7th. "I’m conservative on all the issues. I’m pro-life. I believe that life begins at conception. I’m an evangelical Christian, and believe that life is one of our greatest, most precious gifts from God, and it has to be protected.”
Jim Davis had already announced he was retiring from his state senate seat serving North Carolina’s westernmost counties in the General Assembly. But he’s now running to go to DC, and touting his experience in Raleigh. “My biggest issue is the debt, and the deficit. I’m a real deficit hawk," Davis told BPR's Cory Vaillancourt. "I think we’ve shown in North Carolina how to cure a debt. We have a lot of unfunded liabilities in North Carolina but about $15-billion less than when (Republicans took over the General Assembly) in 2011.”
Buncombe County lawyer Chuck Archerd ran in 2018, but only as a backup in case Meadows took a job in Trump administration. Archerd is running on his own credentials this time. 2020 is the first candidacy for Madison Cawthorn, the youngest candidate in the GOP field. He touted his youth as a strength during an appearance February 7th on Fox News, during which Cawthorn noted the 11th district’s new boundaries now include all of Asheville and Buncombe County. “We have a very new place added into our district which adds a lot of liberals into our constituency. And I believe I’m one of the only candidates who can reach into urban Buncombe County in North Carolina, and pull out young undecided voters. I’m a true conservative who can compete in a traditional political arena like cable television or a debate stage, but I can also compete on the new town square – which is social media, blog posts, anything like that.”
The GOP field also features plenty of candidates who don’t currently live in the 11th, and it is legal for someone to represent a district they don’t live in. Wayne King leads that bunch, but he is very familiar with the 11th, having previously served as Meadows deputy chief of staff. “Many of these candidates will vote exactly the same way in Washington D.C. without any question. You’re dealing with mostly conservative people," King said during a BPR forum. "And the thing that separates me is I have run the constituent service operation for Congressman Meadows for the last seven years. I believe that’s where the rubber meets the road. Helping people with their IRS issues, their VA issues, and the like.”
Vance Patterson ran for Congress in 2012, and lost in a runoff to Meadows. He’s back in the GOP field in 2020. “President Trump is a business man, he’s an entrepreneur, and a visionary. He sees things that are possible, and then puts together a team and makes things happen," Patterson said during a BPR forum. "As you can see from my family experience, my business and foundation, I also am a man of works over words.”
The threshold for a runoff is now lower than it was in 2012. But Western Carolina University political scientist Dr. Chris Cooper says the 11-person field on the GOP side might still force one. If no candidate gets to 30% of the vote, a runoff will be held. "So I think the first thing they’re all trying to do is avoid a runoff, which would be costly and drive away voter attention,” says Cooper.
Rounding out the GOP 11 in the 11th are Joey Osborne, Dillon Gentry, Dan Driscoll, Albert Wiley, and Steven Fekete Jr.
On Wednesday February 26th at noon, BPR listeners can hear two candidate forums held with Republican candidates in the 11th that were recorded in our studios.