By Jim EllisFeb. 12, 2019 — The death of veteran North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-Farmville) on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019 — his 76th birthday — has sent the state’s 3rd District into a special election that will likely last all the way to Sep. 10, and the campaign will be unusually competitive.
Since the district was drawn in its current configuration in 2011, the Democrats have spent only an aggregate of $53,000 in challenging Rep. Jones. In 2018, he was unopposed. Two years earlier, Democratic nominee Ernest Reeves placed his name on the ballot but literally spent no money. During the four post-2010 census elections, Jones averaged 74.5 percent of the vote, and 66.0 percent when the uncontested campaign is removed from the configuration.
But, the special election campaign looks very different and will be the first truly competitive campaign in this part of eastern North Carolina since Jones unseated then-Rep. Martin Lancaster all the way back in 1994.
On Friday, candidate filing closed and no less than 26 Republicans, Democrats, and minor party candidates filed to run in the April 30 primary. With so many names on the ballot it is possible that both major parties could be forced into runoff elections even though North Carolina has only a 30 percent runoff rule.
For the Republicans, 17 individuals filed including a two-time primary opponent to Rep. Jones, three sitting state representatives, and the state Republican Party vice chair. But the Democrats, for the first time in more than two decades, have legitimate contenders in a district that should continually elect Republicans. The six-person Democratic field contains two former mayors, one of Greenville, the other New Bern, and two retired Marine Corps officers.
The significant Republican candidates appear to be 2016 and ’18 candidate Phil Law, state Reps. Greg Murphy (R-Greenville), Phil Shepard (R-Jacksonville), and Michael Speciale (R-New Bern), Currituck County Commissioners Paul Beaufort and Mike Payment, Lenoir County Commissioner Eric Rouse, state Republican Party Vice Chair Michele Nix, physician and University of North Carolina Board of Governors member Joan Perry, retired Marine Corps Colonel Francis Deluca, and businesswoman Celeste Cairns, the cousin of freshman Texas Congressman Lance Gooden (R-Terrell).
The key Democrats are former mayors Allen Thomas (Greenville) and Dana Outlaw (New Bern), retired Marine colonel, Richard Bew, and retired Marine Corps major and former state House candidate Ike Johnson.
In order to have a chance to win the special general election, the Democrats will need to see one of their candidates establish a consensus to the point of exceeding 30 percent support to claim the nomination with a plurality vote. This would give the eventual winner more than two months to build an organization while the Republicans inevitably fight through a July 9 runoff.
NC-3 has a strong Republican history. The district supported President Trump, 60-37 percent, while the state voted for him, 50-46 percent. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried the seat, 58-41 percent, while winning the state 50-48 percent. Four years earlier, John McCain scored a 57-42 percent win in the 3rd while losing North Carolina to then-Sen. Barack Obama by a half percentage point. Therefore, this district has consistently run between 7-10 points more Republican than the statewide vote in national elections.
The 3rd District begins at the Virginia border in the northeastern corner of the Tar Heel State, and then travels south to include all of the Outer Banks region from Knotts Island to Morehead City, Emerald Isle, and Surf City. The top population centers are the cities of Jacksonville and New Bern, and part of Greenville.