08/17/04 — Low turnout seen for primary

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Low turnout seen for primary

By Staff and Wire
Published in News on August 17, 2004 2:05 PM

Candidates in Tuesday's runoff election spent their final day of campaigning by rallying supporters to vote and trying to buck predictions of low turnout.

That might prove a futile task because negativity that has dominated races for two Republican seats in Congress could turn off voters, experts say.

But Wayne County residents won't see much of that, because today's only primary here is for the state school superintendent's race, which has generated little public mention, negative or otherwise.

The polls in Wayne County opened today at 6:30 a.m. and will close at 7:30 p.m. Election officials predict low voter turnout for the Democratic primary between Raleigh residents Marshall Stewart and June Atkinson.

Wayne voters eligible to vote in this election are registered Democrats and those registered unaffiliated who voted in the Democratic primary in July.

Though the primary has been quiet here, GOP candidates in conservative strongholds in the western part of the state have accused each other of lies, campaign finance irregularities and connections to former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"I think we would have low turnout under any circumstances, and I think we could have even a lower turnout because of the kind of race and the negativity, the kinds of charges, each calling the other liars repeatedly," said Jack Fleer, professor emeritus of political science at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

The runoffs were called by runners-up in races in which the top vote-getter in last month's primary election did not get at least 40 percent of the vote. Winners on Tuesday will represent their party in the Nov. 2 general election.

A handful of state House and Senate nominations are also up for grabs.

Election officials say turnout could be as low as 3 percent. Experts say the winners Tuesday will be the candidates who can motivate their base to the polls.

In the 5th Congressional District, Vernon Robinson, a Winston-Salem alderman and self-described black Jesse Helms, faces state Sen. Virginia Foxx of Watauga County. The 5th District seat is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, who is running for U.S. Senate.

In the primary, Robinson took 24 percent of the vote and Foxx got 22 percent. They hold similar positions on issues: opposing same-sex marriage, supporting gun ownership rights, and taking tough stances on immigration.

The differences that voters will consider are in style, said Fleer. A more tame "consensus builder like Foxx," or Robinson, who will draw a lot of attention to himself with his outspoken views, is the choice.

Electing Robinson could bring symbolic "big tent" appearances because he would be the first black Republican elected to Congress since J.C. Watts left in 2002, said Dennis Grady, a political science professor at Appalachian State University.

"The other side is he's a lightening rod," Grady said. "I think even conservative Republicans perceive him as extremely conservative, maybe too conservative.

"I think it will have a huge effect on turnout. If you're a moderate Republican, you don't have anybody to vote for."

Further south in the similarly conservative 10th Congressional District, longtime Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman squares off against state Rep. Patrick McHenry of Gaston County.

Huffman captured 35 percent of the vote and McHenry got 26 percent.

McHenry says Huffman started the attacks by going after his professional record and personal life. The McHenry camp has charged that Huffman made questionable moves with his campaign funds.

The winner is expected to replace longtime U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger, who is retiring.

Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believes the negativity in the primary campaigns could actually motivate voters.

"If it wasn't for the advertising and charges that get into your newspaper and others, people would forget about it altogether," he said.