Early voting begins next Wednesday, April 24, in the Republican primary for the 9th Congressional District seat. The seat remains unfilled after state elections officials invalidated last November's results because of absentee ballot fraud. Mark Harris, the Republican who led unofficial results in that race, isn't running. But 10 other Republicans are - and eight showed up at a candidate forum Tuesday in south Charlotte.
One thing was clear after 90 minutes of opening and closing statements and four rounds of questions: There wasn't much ideological disagreement among the eight candidates. Nearly all said they oppose abortion, favor gun rights, and want to do more to fight illegal immigration.
To current state Senator Dan Bishop, it's not about those issues - they're a given. It's about who can beat Democrat Dan McCready in the general election.
"And I am the only candidate who has done the hard work to assemble the necessary resources to run the kind of campaign that can go toe-to-toe with the other side, with Dan McCready," Bishop said.
Bishop has loaned his campaign $250,000 and raised another $130,000 so far - well ahead of the other candidates.
The Charlotte resident also said he's the "warrior" Republicans need to fight Democrats in Washington, like House newcomers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota - frequent targets of President Trump and conservatives:
"You need to send a proven conservative, a battle-tested conservative, someone who has won re-election as a conservative, against the tide," Bishop said.
Bishop's warrior reference may not have been an accident. McCready is a Marine Corps veteran and small business owner who finished just 900 votes behind Mark Harris in the November election.
But first Bishop will have to defeat another Marine vet in his own party, Matthew Ridenour. The former Mecklenburg County Commissioner played up his 11 years in the Marines, including two tours in Iraq. He said his experience will help him not battle Democrats, but work with them.
"You learn to work with people who are different than yourself. Why? Not to close a business deal, not to advance some personal cause. It was because your life and their life depended on you accomplishing a mission," he said.
Ridenhour said we don't need "business as usual" politics in Washington. He wants to work on immigration reform, passing a balanced budget amendment and fixing health care. Ridenhour has raised about $64,000 so far.
RUSHING WANTS TO WIN DEM VOTES
Union County Commissioner Stony Rushing, the candidate Harris has endorsed, called himself the most background-checked candidate in the race. That's because of his work as firearms instructor and dealer and Boy Scout leader. He also said he's ready to work with Democrats - especially those in the 9th District, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville.
"What's really important is being able to connect to the Democrats, not in San Francisco, but in the eastern part of the 9th District. And I can do that," Rushing said.
"They desperately want to come to somewhere that they can find a home that's conservative. Many are more conservative than you are."
Other candidates at the forum also see more battles ahead with Democrats - or as Bishop and others referred to them - the "socialists." Stevie Rivenbark Hull of Fayetteville said after a 2012 car wreck, she faced a decision whether to terminate a pregnancy to protect her own health, but chose not to. She said she has acted on her conservative values.
"And I believe it's time for us to send that message up against the socialists, with their loud megaphones and all of their crazy rhetoric. We need to stand up to them," she said. "And who better to do that, than someone who has not just talked about our messages, not even just voted about them, but someone who's actually lived them."
STRAW POLL TO BISHOP
About 160 people attended the forum hosted by the Mecklenburg Evening Women's Republican Club. Afterward, Bishop won a straw poll with 42 percent, Ridenhour got 30 percent and Rushing 13 percent.
Other candidates at the forum were former state Senator Fern Shubert of Union County, Leigh Thomas Brown of Harrisburg, Albert Lee Wiley Jr. of Atlantic Beach, and Garry Dunn of Matthews.
Kathie Day of Cornelius and Chris Anglin of Raleigh weren't there.
Early voting runs from April 24th to May 10th. Primary Day is May 14th. The winner faces Democrat Dan McCready, Libertarian Jeff Scott and Green Party Candidate Allen Smith.